American Academy of Pediatrics 2003;111;1541 Pediatrics

Family Pediatrics: Report of the Task Force on the Family
American Academy of Pediatrics
Pediatrics 2003;111;1541
The online version of this article, along with updated information and services, is
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PEDIATRICS is the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. A monthly
publication, it has been published continuously since 1948. PEDIATRICS is owned,
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Boulevard, Elk Grove Village, Illinois, 60007. Copyright © 2003 by the American Academy
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Family Pediatrics
Report of the Task Force on the Family
Why a Task Force on the Family?
ABSTRACT. The practice of pediatrics is unique
among medical specialties in many ways, among which
is the nearly certain presence of a parent when health
care services are provided for the patient. Regardless of
whether parents or other family members are physically
present, their influence is pervasive. Families are the
most central and enduring influence in children’s lives.
Parents are also central in pediatric care. The health and
well-being of children are inextricably linked to their
parents’ physical, emotional and social health, social circumstances, and child-rearing practices. The rising incidence of behavior problems among children attests to
some families’ inability to cope with the increasing
stresses they are experiencing and their need for assistance. When a family’s distress finds its voice in a child’s
symptoms, pediatricians are often parents’ first source
for help.
There is enormous diversity among families— diversity in the composition of families, in their ethnic and
racial heritage, in their religious and spiritual orientation, in how they communicate, in the time they spend
together, in their commitment to individual family members, in their connections to their community, in their
experiences, and in their ability to adapt to stress. Within
families, individuals are different from one another as
well. Pediatricians are especially sensitive to differences
among children—in their temperaments and personalities, in their innate and learned abilities, and in how they
view themselves and respond to the world around them.
It is remarkable and a testament to the effort of parents
and to the resilience of children that most families function well and most children succeed in life.
Family life in the United States has been subjected to
extensive scrutiny and frequent commentary, yet even
when those activities have been informed by research,
they tend to be influenced by personal experience within
families and by individual and cultural beliefs about
how society and family life ought to be. The process of
formulating recommendations for pediatric practice,
public policy, professional education, and research requires reaching consensus on some core values and principles about family life and family functioning as they
affect children, knowing that some philosophic disagreements will remain unresolved. The growing multicultural character of the country will likely heighten awareness of our diversity.
Many characteristics of families have changed during
the past 3 to 5 decades. Families without children
younger than 18 years have increased substantially, and
they are now the majority. The average age at marriage
has increased, and a greater proportion of births is occur-
From the American Academy of Pediatrics, Elk Grove Village, Illinois.
Received for publication Jan 30, 2003; accepted Jan 31, 2003.
PEDIATRICS (ISSN 0031 4005). Copyright © 2003 by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
ring to women older than 30 years. Between 1970 and
2000, the proportion of children in 2-parent families decreased from 85% to 69%, and more than one quarter
(26%) of all children live with a single parent, usually
their mother. Most of this change reflects a dramatic
increase in the rate of births to unmarried women that
went from 5.3% in 1960 to 33.2% in 2000. Another factor
in this change is a slowly decreasing but still high divorce rate that is roughly double what it was in the
Family income is strongly related to children’s health,
and the financial resources that families have available
are closely tied to changes in family structure. Family
income in real dollars has trended up for many decades,
but the benefits have not been shared equally. For example, the median income of families with married parents
has increased by 146% since 1970, but female-headed
households have experienced a growth of 131%. More
striking is that in 2000, the median income of femaleheaded households was only 47% of that of marriedcouple families and only 65% of that of families with 2
married parents in which the wife was not employed.
Not surprising, the proportion of children who live in
poverty is approximately 5 times greater for femaleheaded families than for married-couple families.
The composition of children’s families and the time
parents have for their children affect child rearing. Consequent to the increase in female-headed households,
rising economic and personal need, and increased opportunities for women, the proportion of mothers who are in
the workforce has climbed steadily over the past several
decades. Currently, approximately two thirds of all mothers with children younger than 18 years are employed.
Most families with young children depend on child care,
and most child care is not of good quality. Reliance on
child care involves longer days for children and families,
the stress imposed by schedules and created by transitions, exposure to infections, and considerable cost. An
increasing number and proportion of parents are also
devoting time previously available to their children to
the care of their own parents. The so-called “sandwich
generation” of parents is being pulled in multiple directions. The amount and use of family time also has
changed with a lengthening workday, including the
amount of commuting time necessary to travel between
work and home, and with the intrusion of television and
computers into family life. In public opinion polls, most
parents report that they believe it is more difficult to be
a parent now than it used to be; people seem to feel more
isolated, social and media pressures on and enticements
of their children seem greater, and the world seems to be
a more dangerous place.
Social and public policy has not kept up with these
changes, leaving families stretched for time and stressed
to cope and meet their responsibilities. What can and
what should pediatrics do to help families raise healthy
and well-adjusted children? How can individual pediatricians better support families?
PEDIATRICS Vol. 111 No. 6 June 2003
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Family Pediatrics
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Board of
Directors appointed the Task Force on the Family to help
guide the development of public policy and recommend
how to assist pediatricians to promote well-functioning
families (see Appendix). The magnitude of the assigned
work required task force members to learn a great deal
from research and researchers in the fields of social and
behavioral sciences. A review of some critical literature
was completed by a consultant to the task force and
accompanies this report. That review identified a convergence of pediatrics and research on families by other
disciplines. The task force found that a great deal is
known about family functioning and family circumstances that affect children. With this knowledge, it is
possible to provide pediatric care in a way that promotes
successful families and good outcomes for children. The
task force refers to that type of care as “family-oriented
care” or “family pediatrics” and strongly endorses policies and practices that promote the adoption of this
2-generational approach as a hallmark of pediatrics.
During the past decade, family advocates have successfully promoted family-centered care, “the philosophies,
principles and practices that put the family at the heart or
center of services; the family as the driving force.” Most
pediatricians report that they involve families in the
decision making regarding the health care of their child
and make an effort to understand the needs of the family
as well as the child. Family pediatrics, like family-centered care, requires an active, productive partnership between the pediatrician and the family. But family pediatrics extends the responsibilities of the pediatrician to
include screening, assessment, and referral of parents for
physical, emotional, or social problems or health risk
behaviors that can adversely affect the health and emotional or social well-being of their child.
Family Context of Child Health
The power and importance of families to children
arises out of the extended duration for which children are
dependent on adults to meet their basic needs. Children’s
needs for which only a family can provide include social
support, socialization, and coping and life skills. Their
self-esteem grows from being cared for, loved, and valued and feeling that they are part of a social unit that
shares values, communicates openly, and provides companionship. Families transmit and interpret values to
their children and often serve as children’s connection to
the larger world, especially during the early years of life.
Although schools provide formal education, families
teach children how to get along in the world.
Often, efforts to discuss families and make recommendations regarding practice or policy stumble over disagreements about the definition of a family. The task
force recognized the diversity of families and chose not
to operate from the position of a fixed definition. Rather,
the task force, which was to address pediatrics, decided
to frame its deliberations and recommendations around
the functions of families and how various aspects of the
family context influence child rearing and child health.
One model of family functioning that implicitly
guided the task force is the family stress model (Fig 1).
Stress of various sorts (eg, financial or health problems,
lack of social support, unhappiness at work, unfortunate
life events) can cause parents emotional distress and
cause couples conflict and difficulty with their relationship. These responses to stress then disrupt parenting
and the interactions between parent and child and can
lead to short-term or lasting poor outcomes. The earlier
these events transpire and the longer that the disruption
lasts, the worse the outcomes for children. The task force
favors efforts to encourage and support marriage yet
recognizes that every family constellation can produce
good outcomes for children and that none is certain to
yield bad ones. Unequivocally, children do best when
they are living with 2 mutually committed and loving
parents who respect and support one another, who have
adequate social and financial resources, and who are
actively engaged in the upbringing of their children.
From its discussions with family experts, its review of
research literature, and its own intensive discussions, the
task force was able to draw about the American family a
limited number of conclusions that are relevant to pediatrics. Two overriding conclusions were apparent. First,
children’s outcomes—their physical and emotional
health and their cognitive and social functioning—are
strongly influenced by how well their families function.
Second, there is much that practicing pediatricians can do
to help nurture and support families and, thus, promote
optimal family functioning and children’s outcomes.
Other conclusions were organized into 4 categories: 1)
family function and structure, 2) family circumstances, 3)
pediatric practice, and 4) policy. Within the first category,
there are conclusions about the effect of family structure,
values, beliefs, roles, and relationships on child rearing
and child outcomes. The second category, family circumstances, summarizes information on the emotional climate within and outside the home that can promote or
impede children’s healthy development. Third, to provide appropriate care for children, pediatricians must
expand their practices to encompass the assessment of
family relationships, health, and behaviors. They must
have the skills and comfort to inquire and learn about
individual families, address family issues realistically,
and link families to support groups and community resources. Pediatricians’ ability to practice family pediatrics is influenced by training, personal experience and
orientation, the work environment, and professional relationships. Finally, there is a need to develop policies
that support reimbursement of pediatricians for services
Fig 1. Family stress model. (Source: Conger KJ,
Rueter MA, Conger RD. The role of economic
pressure in the lives of parents and their adolescents: the family stress model. In: Crockett LJ,
Silbereisen RJ, eds. Negotiating Adolescence in Times
of Social Change. Cambridge, England: Cambridge
University Press; 2000:201–233)
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for families; that acknowledge the importance of marriage, parenting, and families for children; and that set
clear expectations for parents while providing opportunities for them to obtain desired support.
The task force intended that its recommendations follow logically from the conclusions it was able to draw.
The scope of family issues that were reviewed and discussed was very wide; consequently, in some cases, the
conclusions are broad and the associated recommendations are numerous. The 80 recommendations also were
organized into 4 categories to facilitate their consideration by individual physicians and various bodies within
the pediatric profession. The first category, education,
offers suggestions on family content for resident training
and for continuing education for practitioners. It also
contains some guidance on priority topics that should be
addressed by parent education materials published by
the AAP.
The second category, policy and advocacy, suggests
public policy positions that would support families and
promote good child outcomes. It also addresses reimbursement policies, including diagnostic and procedure
coding, which could enable pediatricians to practice family pediatrics. Some suggestions for internal AAP policies that would highlight the importance of a family
orientation for the organization also are provided. Finally, opportunities are identified for the AAP to promote local and national policies and activities that support and strengthen families through its chapters and its
relationships with other professional organizations.
The third and most extensive category comprises recommendations about pediatric practice. This category
includes suggestions for how pediatricians can modify
their practice behaviors to promote good family functioning and effective parenting. Included are recommendations for how pediatricians can help strengthen parental
partnerships in different family types, screen for family
circumstances that put children at risk, and help create
family-friendly practice environments. For additional
guidance, some characteristics of a family-friendly pediatrician are listed in the final table of the report.
The final category makes recommendations for research that the AAP should encourage or undertake to
better enable pediatricians to provide family-oriented
care. Areas for research include the mechanics, content,
and effectiveness of family-oriented pediatrics practice;
public policies and programs that promote family functioning and family-oriented care; and progress toward
adopting the principles and content of family pediatrics
among health care organizations, insurers, and AAP
Taken as a whole, the recommendations provide a
comprehensive plan for the AAP and pediatricians to
assist families to function well and meet the needs of
their children. The scope of work that is required is
extensive and touches on nearly every aspect of the work
done by the organization. It also requires modifications
in pediatric practices to accommodate changes in the
characteristics and circumstances of families that are
Next Steps to Ensure Implementation
The task force report is only the first step in what
needs to be an ongoing process to ensure that children’s
health care is effectively provided in the context of their
families. Attention to families should become integrated
into the work of the AAP. This report should be reviewed
and discussed by AAP staff, committees, sections, and
members to determine which recommendations apply to
their work and to plan strategies for their implementation. A single entity needs to take ongoing responsibility
for monitoring and promoting activities related to the
task force’s recommendations. These responsibilities
should be assigned with high priority to a standing committee of the AAP.
ABBREVIATIONS. AAP, American Academy of Pediatrics; CME,
continuing medical education.
he practice of pediatrics is unique among medical specialties in many ways, among which is
the nearly certain presence of a parent when
health care services are provided for the patient—a
child. Regardless of whether parents or other family
members are physically present, their influence is
pervasive. Families are the most central and enduring influence in children’s lives regardless of their
composition, income, education, or values. The
health and well-being of children are inextricably
linked to their parents’ physical, emotional and social health, social circumstances, and child-rearing
practices. The rising incidence of behavior problems
among children attests to families’ inability to cope
with the increasing stresses they are experiencing
and their need for assistance. When a family’s distress finds its voice in a child’s symptoms, pediatricians are often parents’ first source for help.
Families are the most central and enduring influence in children’s lives.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) acknowledges the importance of the family in its vision
statement to “ensure that the decision-making affecting the health and well-being of children and their
families is based on the needs of those children and
families.” Yet, expecting pediatricians and the AAP
not only to consider but also to address families’
needs raises a number of difficult issues. These issues
range from pragmatic considerations to complex
philosophic questions. Are pediatric training, practice behaviors, and reimbursement sufficient to enable pediatricians to extend their scope of care to
include the family? Does our society expect parents
to be so self-reliant and consider child rearing to be
so private that support from nonfamily members,
such as pediatricians, is considered intrusive and
The AAP Task Force on the Family carefully considered these issues in preparation for proposing
recommendations for policy, education, and practice.
We found that the apparently simple concept of
“family” is, in fact, extremely complicated and
strongly influenced by personal and social values.
We found that experience and research left many
fundamental questions unanswered, thus limiting
our ability to support our recommendations with the
scientific assurance we desired. We also acknowledged that reasonable people commonly disagree
and that a certain degree of ambiguity is likely to
persist even after careful review and thoughtful consideration. Nonetheless, task force members shared a
belief in the importance of families to children and in
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the need for the profession to embrace more fully
and actively the roles that support families.
The appointment of the task force was preceded by
the adoption of a number of resolutions by the AAP
Annual Chapter Forum in 1993 and 1994. These resolutions urged the AAP to develop public policies
that 1) were family friendly and supported the maintenance of 2-parent households and 2) would help
pediatricians provide guidance to single-parent
households. They also called on the AAP to promote
methods to encourage the promotion of nurturing
families for all children. (The Annual Chapter Forum
has continued to be a source of ideas and support for
AAP involvement in family issues.) In 1994, the AAP
Board of Directors added responsibility for promoting healthy lifestyles for families to its fiscal year
1995–1996 goals. In 1995, the Committee on Early
Childhood, Adoption, and Dependent Care recommended to the board that it identify ways by which
the Academy can strengthen its public presence as an
advocate for families. The AAP Executive Committee
endorsed this recommendation. Also in 1995, the
periodicity table for preventive pediatric health care
was modified to include a recommendation that appropriate discussion and counseling be an integral
part of each visit for preventive care. In late 1997, the
AAP Board of Directors appointed the Task Force on
the Family. The task force consisted of 6 pediatricians
who were to meet 4 times over approximately 2
years. The board recognized the complexity of the
issues the task force was to address and provided a
series of directives to guide its work (Appendix).
Approach of the Task Force
The task force spent its first year immersing itself
in scientific literature on a variety of family topics
and meeting with experts in family demographics,
sociology, policy, and therapy and in child development, behavior, psychology, and psychiatry. Arrangements were made for a national expert in child
development to prepare a review of published literature on family influences on children’s outcomes.
Task force members also devoted considerable time
to exploring and clarifying their own beliefs about
families and reconciling them with what is known
about the effects of families and their circumstances
on children. The task force spent its remaining time
reviewing existing AAP policies and materials and
developing this report.
Report Organization
This report is organized into a number of major
sections. Although necessarily long, the background
section on family functioning and structure only
briefly reviews a portion of what has been published
about those subjects. Subsequent sections discuss the
effects of families’ circumstances on children, the
nature of pediatric training, and the practice environment. Brief reviews are provided of AAP policies
and the role of the AAP in public policy. Resource
materials relevant to family-oriented pediatrics
available through the AAP are discussed. Following
is a summary section and a checklist of characteristics of a family-oriented pediatric practice. A section
on conclusions precedes a final section of recommendations.
Because of the absence of research addressing
some specific question, some of what is written here,
especially our conclusions, is not fact in the purest
scientific sense but has had to be extrapolated or
inferred from related research and information. At
the conclusion of our work, it is apparent that the
importance of families to children and society and
the scope of issues that a family orientation raises for
pediatrics leave much to be done. It is equally clear
that interdisciplinary efforts are needed to address
the needs of even 1 family, let alone the needs of
families in general. This report is a first step toward
identifying opportunities for action by the AAP and
its members. Future work will find, as did the task
force, that many family issues are likely to remain
unresolved by research. Future issues for families
and how they are best managed will continue to be
shaped by the diversity that is the strength of our
society and reflected in the talents, skills, and experience of the AAP membership.
The concept of family is held in high regard in the
United States, and families are ascribed a central role
in creating and maintaining American society. Naturally, then, when social problems arise, the family is
looked to as the root of those problems and the
source of the solutions— both unrealistic and simplistic formulations. Such a view ignores the social
context in which families are formed, develop, and
function, a context that is increasingly stressful and
not always supportive of parents or children.
“The social tapestry supporting families has been weakened
due to the considerable pressure and stress of the speed of
social change.”1
Many current public polices are based on an idealized, self-sufficient “traditional family” (ie, working husband, stay-at-home wife, and dependent
child), which is not an accurate depiction of many
families today or even of the past. Certainly there has
been a dramatic increase in the number of singleparent households, and this trend has led to much
consternation about a breakdown of the family. Despite this public concern, the United States stands
apart from most similarly developed countries in
having no coherent set of public policies that would
create a social context supportive of families, traditional or otherwise. For example, the United States
has conflicting policies that encourage and, in some
cases, demand that women participate equally in the
workforce yet permit wage discrimination on the
basis of gender and fail to provide accessible, goodquality child care. As another example, of the 130
countries that have national maternity leave policies,
only 3—Ethiopia, Australia, and the United States—
provide only unpaid leave, and in the United States,
this leave is guaranteed only to employees of companies with 50 or more workers (less than 60% of the
working population). The United States is unusual,
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however, in providing gender-neutral parental leave;
most countries provide no leave for fathers or paternity leave that is shorter and/or unpaid.2
One immediate obstacle in policy development is
lack of agreement on a definition of “family.” The US
Census Bureau uses a purely structural definition: “a
group of 2 or more persons related by birth, marriage, or adoption and residing together in a household.” Under this definition, childless households
are most common, a fact that may bode poorly for
public support for families with children; children
are present in only 26% of households in the United
States. The task force chose to use a functional definition of “family” and tried to reach agreement on
the types of things that families ought to provide
children. Although helpful, such an approach
quickly led to questions such as, “What is a successful family, a good parent, and a good child outcome?” Such questions vexed the task force, because
in some measure, they are questions of values that
are difficult to answer empirically. This report reflects the consensus we reached on those and other
complex questions.
Family Diversity
There is great diversity in family types and family
structure. Single men and women can create families
or can be single as a result of the death of 1 partner.
Other families include 2 parents who are living apart
because of separation or divorce. Two-parent family
households could be cohabiting, married for the first
time, or remarried or reconstituted. Other family
types include the adoptive family, the foster family,
and the estranged or separated family. Parents can
be of the same or opposite sex. In addition, there are
nuclear, extended, and multigenerational households. In economic terms, families can have 0, 1, 2, or
multiple wage earners. The variety of families is also
influenced by ethnicity, geographic and regional influences, sexual orientation, and religion.
The families of the United States represent a diversity of national and ethnic origins of its citizens unmatched anywhere else in the world. The behavior of
many families, including spousal roles and relationships and child-rearing practices, consciously and
unconsciously reflects beliefs and values passed
down through generations. Our national heritage
and history and the increasing diversity among the
population of young families demand great cultural
sensitivity and competence on the part of pediatricians to meet the needs of children effectively.
Family Structure and Its Limitations
Family structure affects child development largely
through its impact on family processes— how family
members behave and interact. The evidence is overwhelming that, in general, children do best when
they are living with 2 mutually committed parents
who respect and support one another, who have
adequate social and financial resources, and who
both are actively engaged in their upbringing. On
average, the risks for emotional, behavioral, and educational problems are lower among children in
2-parent households.3 The reason for this is impor-
tant to emphasize: a 2-parent household structure
facilitates (but does not guarantee) successful families and effective parenting behaviors. Effective parenting can and does occur within families of all types
of configurations.
“Researchers will always disagree about whether family
structure plays a causal role in determining child well-being.”3
Although many children who are raised by single
or separated parents do well and many in 2-parent
families do poorly, there is no question that children
who are reared in single-parent households are at
greater risk of a variety of problems. Scientifically,
controversy arises from efforts to determine the relative contribution of family structure to children’s
outcomes. Although children of single or separated
parents have significant increases in risk, children
from educationally and economically deprived backgrounds have far more substantial risks—regardless
of whether they live with 1 parent or 2. Complicating
our ability to draw conclusions is the unfortunate
fact that children who are reared in single-parent
households are more likely to be poor.3
Single-parent households generally differ from
2-parent households in terms of economic and parental resources. Single-parent households have 3 to
5 times higher rates of poverty than do 2-parent
households. In addition, parents who do not share
parenting with another adult experience the psychologic strain of making decisions of potential lifelong
consequence alone, they lack time to carry out household and child-rearing tasks, and they often experience the transitional and continuing conflict and resentment that plague some separated and divorced
families. Children and parents in single-parent
households also are less likely to have access to the
support and resources of extended families.3
Still, for an individual child, one cannot predict
with assurance that any particular family structure
per se will be detrimental to his or her development.
In general, it seems that each family structure has its
own set of stresses, burdens, and complicated social
pressures that intersects with each family’s unique
circumstances and personal, economic, and material
resources. Divorce is traumatic, as is ongoing family
conflict, and single or separated parents are more
likely to be poor and especially in need of social
support. However, no particular family constellation
makes poor outcomes for children inevitable.
No particular family constellation makes poor or good outcomes for children inevitable.
A stable, well-functioning family that consists of 2
parents and children is potentially the most secure,
supportive, and nurturing environment in which
children may be raised. That children can be successfully brought to adulthood without this basic functioning unit is a tribute to those involved who have
developed the skill and resiliency to overcome a
difficult and fundamental challenge.
Successful Families
When the family environment enables their developmental needs to be met, children generally turn
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out well socially and psychologically and parents are
satisfied with their lives and marriages. Throughout
children’s dependent years, families provide them
with food, clothing, shelter, a safe and clean environment, adequate supervision, and access to necessary
health care and education. Families are also where
children receive support; come to feel loved, valued,
and competent; are provided with companionship;
and learn to believe in a shared set of values. Families transmit their own values and those of the outside world, including general principles of what is
right and wrong and principles based on spirituality
or religion. They also provide connections to the
community. Finally, families teach how to cope with
adversity and how to get along in the world.4 Doing
all of these things and doing them well is difficult
regardless of the personal and material resources
that families bring to the task of raising children.
Although success as a family is difficult to measure and individual families differ on the specific
outcomes they value, successful families share certain characteristics. They are enduring, cohesive, affectionate, and mutually appreciative. Family members communicate with one another often and
effectively. Although not trouble free, successful
families are able to adapt and deal with crises constructively. Family members spend time together,
are committed to their family, and embrace a common religious or spiritual orientation. Although the
underlying logic is admittedly circular, successful
families raise children who go on to form successful
families themselves.5
“What we often take to be family values—the work ethic,
honest, clean living, marital fidelity, and individual responsibility—are, in fact, social, religious, or cultural values. . . .
There is one value, however, that does originate in the family.
It is the value of close relationships with other family members, and the importance of these bonds relative to other
Parents’ own psychologic resources, including
their problem-solving abilities, coping skills, sense of
self-esteem and mental health, and how they relate to
other adults and to their children, are critical to how
children turn out. Although child rearing is a dynamic process that also depends on the characteristics and psychologic resources of the child, it occurs
within a social and emotional environment that is
strongly determined by the parents. What is experienced within the family is transferred to social relationships beyond the family, and events that occur
within the context of parent-child interactions affect
children’s behavior in other settings. If families are
successful, their children will develop toward adulthood able to form close emotional relationships, becoming progressively more autonomous in appropriately managing their lives.
Children need good-quality parenting, including
receiving unconditional love and adequate time from
their parents. Within this framework, a wide range of
parenting styles can result in positive child outcomes. In general, parents whose style is “authoritative” (ie, they combine warmth and affection with
thoughtful, firm limit setting; are responsive and
flexible; and demonstrate their respect for their child
and his rational abilities) are more likely to have
children who are happy, creative, and cooperative;
have high self-esteem; are achievement oriented; and
do well academically and socially.7 Other styles of
parenting, including being authoritarian, permissive,
or disengaged, can tend to yield less consistently
positive outcomes. The emotional well-being of children may be jeopardized when parents are rigid,
inconsistent, controlling, unresponsive, and uninvolved.8,9 In addition, success is more likely when
parents monitor and supervise their children inside
and outside the home; encourage their participation
in growth-enhancing activities at home, in school,
and in the community; and move toward shared
decision making and greater personal responsibility
as the child grows.
Communities, from neighborhoods to nations, are
strengthened when their families are successful.
Families are important to society because of the
many functions they can fulfill, including providing
a structure for reproduction, creating economic cooperation between husbands and wives, organizing
inheritance of property, and socializing children.
Public opinion assigns most of the value of families
to this last function, socializing children. Americans
believe that families perform 2 primary functions: 1)
caring for and nurturing children and 2) being the
place where values are taught and learned. Other
entities can provide food and clothing, but families
seem essential to the process of raising socially and
emotionally healthy children. When families fail in
this task, the costs to communities and society as
well as to children and families are high. Table 1 lists
characteristics of strong, healthy families.
“Marriage has declined as the central institution under which
households are organized and children are raised. People
marry later and divorce and cohabit more. A growing proportion of children [have] been born outside marriage.”10
Married (or Not) With Children
Marriage remains a goal for most adults. Across
the political spectrum, people overwhelmingly want
their children and grandchildren to be born into
marriages and want those marriages to be characterized by love, stability, and durability. Although
many young people reject the idea that marriage and
having children is a personal necessity, most continue to value marriage. Ninety percent of all high
school seniors say that it is quite or extremely important that they have a good marriage and family
life, and most expect to marry.
Advances in contraception and in career opportunities for women have made marriage less imperative and women less reliant on men for financial
support. In fact, our economy relies on women’s
participation in the workforce. Despite these
changes, annual marriage rates have been relatively
Characteristics of Strong, Healthy Families5
Encouragement of individuals
Expressing appreciation
Commitment to family
Religious or spiritual orientation
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Social connectedness
Ability to adapt
Clear roles
Time together
steady since the 1950s (ranging from 8.8 to 10.9 per
1000 people). However, when people marry and how
long they stay married have changed substantially.
Since the 1960s, the median age of first marriage has
increased by approximately 4 years. Cohabitation
has also increased and is nearly twice as common as
2 decades ago. Today, people who marry may have
established a pattern of economic self-sufficiency
and a lifestyle that makes the interdependence of
marriage less necessary and perhaps less attractive.
Rates of divorce have been decreasing from their
high in 1981, but the most recent rate is still approximately half (48%) of the marriage rate. There is little
reason to expect current patterns of marriage and
divorce to change in the foreseeable future.
Marriage Matters
Marriage is beneficial in many ways. Married men
and women are physically and emotionally healthier
and are less likely to engage in health risk behaviors,
such as alcohol or drug abuse, than are unmarried
adults. Married men and, to a slightly lesser extent,
married women live longer. These positive health
outcomes of marriage are not primarily the result of
self-selection but reflect that people behave differently when they are married. They have healthier
lifestyles, eat better, and monitor each other’s health.
Being part of a couple and a family also increases the
number of people and social institutions with which
an individual has contact; this, in turn, increases
sources of social support and increases the probability that the family will be a successful one.
Marriage is good for the economy. Married individuals earn and save more and are more likely to be
homeowners. Married couples are, on average, approximately twice as wealthy as unmarried couples.
Employers benefit from good marriages, because the
distress that accompanies marital problems contributes to workers’ absenteeism and decreases their
There is no doubt that the decrease in the stability
of marriage and the relaxation of social mores that
limit childbearing to wedlock have increased poverty and the need for personal resources and supports; this consequently increases the public cost of
many health and social service programs. For example, after a divorce, women usually experience a
significant decrease in their standard of living, and
many enter poverty. The median income of mother-
only families has always been a fraction of the median income of 2-parent families. Although being
unmarried has its costs, poverty appears to challenge
marriage. Out-of-wedlock births occur most often in
circumstances of poverty, and economic stress appears to contribute to marital conflict and divorce.
Regardless of the direction of cause, single-parent
households are much more likely to be impoverished
and dependent on social programs to meet their
basic needs. Poverty is the dominant social factor
associated with poor outcomes for parents and children.
Many people hold strong beliefs about the importance of marriage to parenthood. A number of studies have documented a positive relationship between
the quality of marital life and parental functioning.
Yet, a persistently high rate of divorce and an increasing rate of out-of-wedlock births preclude that
relationship for many children. With nearly one third
(32.8%) of births occurring to unmarried mothers
and approximately one half of marriages ending in
divorce, many children spend a portion of their
childhood in a single-parent household. In 1999, only
68% of children lived in families with 2 parents, and
only three quarters of those were living with both
biologic parents.
How else has marital status affected the living
circumstances of children in the United States? Over
the past 3 decades, the proportion of children who
live with 1 parent increased from 11.8% in 1968, to
18.5% in 1978, and to 27.7% in 1998.11 There are large
differences across racial and ethnic groups (Fig 2).
Of children who live with 1 parent, most (84%) live
with their mothers; the proportion of children who
live with their fathers has doubled in the past 20
years. Of all children who live with 1 parent, 36% do
so because of divorce; a sizable proportion (21%) live
with a married parent whose spouse is absent. Approximately 10% of all children live with a nevermarried mother. The distinction between these family types is somewhat artificial. Approximately one
third of children who are born outside marriage are
born to formerly married women, and approximately one quarter are born to cohabiting parents,
approximately two thirds of whom eventually marry
each other.3
“The trajectory of failure is intergenerational.”12
Fig 2. Proportion of children who live with 1 parent.
*Not available for 1970.
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Cohabitation, sometimes called pseudo-stepparenting, is becoming increasingly common among
households with children. In 1997, among the approximately 4 million unmarried couples were
nearly 1.5 million with at least 1 child younger than
18 years. Social acceptance of cohabitation rests on
the notion that relationships can be explored and
compatibility can be ensured by a test before marriage. However, cohabitation is associated with a
substantially higher rate of divorce among those who
later marry as well as breakups during the cohabitation period.13 Cohabitation is more unstable for children than either married 2-parent or single-mother
families and tends to produce worse outcomes for
children. This high disruption rate of cohabiting couples may reflect choices being made by people who
are reluctant to make commitments. Cohabitation
also may reinforce the acceptance of relationships
being temporary. Conversely, at the birth of a child,
the majority of cohabiting parents say they intend to
marry; however, 1 year later, few will have actually
done so. The economic status of cohabiting couples
tends to be low, resembling those of single-parent
families more than of married families.14 Finally,
there is some evidence from England that children
who live with a mother and cohabiting boyfriend are
more likely to experience child abuse than those who
live with married biologic parents, although the reasons for that increased risk have not been elucidated.15
The rate of out-of-wedlock births has been increasing since the 1940s among all segments of society,
stabilizing in the late 1990s at approximately 32% to
33%. A number of factors are thought to have contributed to this trend, including the growing economic independence of women, the increase in
women’s earning power relative to men’s, and the
decreased stigma associated with divorce and nonmarital childbearing.3 Also contributing are a greater
social acceptance of divorce and perhaps a lower
commitment to and a loss of confidence in marriage.
The rate of out-of-wedlock births has increased
nearly fivefold since 1960 and has contributed to an
increase in single parenthood in part as a result of
lower rates of marriage by teenagers. The peak of
teenaged parenthood was in 1957, when the rate of
births to teenagers (96.3 per 1000) was nearly double
what it is today, but most of those teenagers were
already married or got married shortly after becoming parents. In 1960, 46% of teenaged mothers were
single when their child was conceived and 22% were
still single when their child was born. In contrast, by
1988, 81% of teenaged mothers were single when
their child was conceived, and 62% remained single.
Although the evidence is mixed and often conflicting, it appears that publicly funded entitlement programs (eg, welfare) increase nonmarital childbearing, discourage first marriage, and delay marriage.
However, the magnitude of this effect is not large,
and poverty itself tends to produce single-parent
families. High rates of male unemployment depress
marriage rates. Married couples who are stressed by
economic uncertainties or by the husband’s unemployment are more likely to divorce. It is too early to
draw conclusions about the effects of recent national
changes in welfare programs on marriage and childbearing.
Partners in Parenting
The functions of a successful family are more difficult to perform when only 1 parent provides dayto-day care for a child. Mothers head most singleparent families. In those households in which
parents live apart, fathers may take a diminished role
in their children’s upbringing. When a noncustodial
parent participates less actively, their influence is
decreased and children are deprived of the full social, emotional, and financial support of their immediate and extended family. Paternal absence also results in the absence of a consistent source of physical
and emotional support for the mother. Studies show
that multiple and sometimes lifelong disadvantages
are more likely to accrue to children who live with
mothers only. Their disadvantaged outcomes include health problems; problems with school attendance, achievement, and completion; emotional and
behavioral problems; adolescent parenthood; substance abuse; and other risk behaviors. Children so
affected are more likely to grow up poor, to spend
large parts of their childhood without 2 parents, to
become single parents themselves, and to be out of
work as young men and women.3 When fathers stay
involved, the adverse effects of divorce are substantially reduced.
“I think adulthood has to mean the ability to take care of more
than yourself, which generally means marriage and family.”—Frances Goldsheider, PhD
Raising children is easier and likely to be more
successful when done as a shared partnership. In
partnership, parents can develop complementary
roles and support each other’s efforts. For example,
in some 2-parent, father-mother households, fathers
have typically not played an active or consistent role
in rearing their children, depriving themselves and
their children of the shared love and support that
comes from active parenting. However, when parents are able to achieve a mutually agreed on division of roles and responsibilities, it tends to generate
greater involvement in the home and family by both
parents. Being raised in a family that consists of 2
actively involved parents strengthens children’s
claims to the love and affection, economic resources,
nurturing, and social connections of both parents
and their extended families.
Although marriage can influence parenthood, the
reverse is also true—parenthood affects marriages.
At its best, having a child is emotionally gratifying. It
evokes a capacity for love that may not previously
have been recognized. It provides a sense of maturity
and an enhanced sense that the former couple is now
a family. More than 80% of adults regard family as 1
of their top 2 sources of pleasure in life, the other
being work. When all goes well, raising a child leads
parents through a series of stages of personal
growth. New adult parents develop an additional
identity; learn new meanings for being responsible;
test ways of being an authority; clarify their own
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values, beliefs, and assumptions; learn the boundaries of their personal influence; and eventually reappraise their own life course and achievements.
Having children also expands parents’ social contacts and can alter how they perceive and rely on
relatives, neighbors, and friends and on affiliations
with civic, social, and religious communities.
However, becoming a parent can test marriages as
well. Parents can expect their marital relationship to
go through some difficult transitions. Having a child
creates differences between parents and crystallizes
others that lie below the surface of their marriage.
Parenthood forces couples to find balance between
being autonomous and being connected. It can reveal
or provoke conflict and highlight shortcomings in
how couples communicate. It can reveal differences
in personal expectations and heighten disagreements
over gender roles and division of labor. Having a
child also increases economic pressure on families.
Marriages are not merely legal unions. They become distinct living systems, and like all such systems, what happens to 1 person in it affects the other
person, too. The more supportive each spouse is to
the other, the stronger their marriage and the better
able they are to nurture their child. When couples are
able to focus on what unites them and what creates
mutual delight, they are likely to have closer relationships, better and happier marriages, and more
successful families.
Divorce and Discord
Annually, more than 1 million children are involved in a divorce. The divorce rate, although decreased slightly since 1992, still hovers at approximately half the marriage rate (2 344 000 marriages vs
1 150 000 divorces in 1996). Approximately 40% to
50% of first marriages end in a divorce. Children and
parents experience many consequences when marriages are dissolved. These include a decrease in
economic status, a change in the living situation,
separation from 1 parent (usually the father), absence
of that parent’s extended family in the life of the
child, and ongoing stress related to visitation and
economic support.
On average, children of divorced parents are at
greater risk of emotional and behavior problems,
including depression, and of poorer school performance. They tend to have more negative self-concepts, more social difficulties, and more problematic
relationships with 1 or both parents. The effects of
parental divorce on children may continue to be
evident into adulthood and can create future marital
instability. This heightened risk experienced by children of divorce arises especially when their parents
are less able to engage in competent parenting and
more likely to engage in parental conflict.16 One third
of divorced parents report continued conflict over
child-custody and visitation issues.
“Children raised apart from one of their parents are less
successful in adulthood. . . many of their problems result
from a loss of income, parental involvement and supervision,
and ties to the community.”3
The most powerful factor that affects children’s adjustment to
divorce is the quality of the parenting they continue to receive.
The impact of divorce on individual children varies widely, and their adjustment after divorce is sensitive to a variety of factors, including their individual differences. Generally, adjustment seems to be
somewhat more difficult for boys than for girls; however, in some areas, including academic achievement, conduct, and psychologic adjustment, boys do
as well as girls after divorce. The most powerful
factor that affects children’s adjustment to divorce is
the quality of parenting they receive from their custodial parent, usually their mother. The quality of
mothers’ parenting and postdivorce conflict explain
the relationship between divorce and girls’ externalizing behaviors. Depression among girls is not common when their mother is able to avoid depression
themselves and engage in competent parenting after
marital breakups. Boys, though, seem prone to depression after divorce regardless of the quality of
parenting they receive. For boys, the level of their
father’s continuing involvement in parenting is a
powerful factor explaining their adjustment, as are
predivorce conflict and maternal depression.16 Fathers who are merely visitors in their children’s lives
are a poor substitute for being a continuing, meaningful parental figure.17 Studies of age and ethnic
differences in the short-term response of children
whose parents divorce do not reveal clear differences. However, it should be emphasized that most
children of divorced parents are well-adjusted and
adapt well to their new life situation.
Living in a 2-parent household is no guarantee of
good child outcomes. Parental conflict has deleterious consequences for children’s development.
Highly troubled marriages have important and
sometimes underappreciated damaging effects on
children’s adjustment.18 It appears that, like divorce,
marital conflict exerts most of its negative effects by
disrupting parenting. Parental conflict seems to affect children’s adjustment most when it is perceived
as threatening the parents’ marriage. Thus, in intact
families, parental conflict probably rarely reaches the
high levels that would give children concern about
the stability of their family structure. In divorced
families, conflict not only has resulted in the “loss” of
their family, but also is apt to decrease the opportunities to interact with 1 of the parents.
Experts in domestic violence distinguish between
families with frequent and high levels of discord and
disagreement and those in which there is physical or
emotional abuse. Although the distinction may not
be clear-cut, children who are abused or who have
witnessed domestic violence are at greater risk of
adjustment problems, aggressive behavior, and poor
cognitive development. When children are evaluated
for behavior problems, including antisocial and selfinjurious behavior, a history of domestic violence
should be considered. Families of such children tend
to make frequent use of health care services, especially of emergency departments, and thus may be
identified for treatment. A history of physical or
sexual abuse during adulthood was reported by 52%
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of women who brought children to a pediatric emergency department; most reported that the abuse was
perpetrated by a relative.19 Child abuse and spousal
or other forms of domestic violence tend to co-occur.
The risk of child abuse increases with increasing
instances of parental violence, and abuse of male
children is more likely than of female children in
such families.20
“The problems facing single-parent families are not very different from the problems facing all parents. They are just
more obvious and more pressing.”3
Fathers Matter
The physical absence of fathers from the home was
seen as the most significant family or social problem
facing America by a strong majority of respondents
(79%) to a recent public opinion poll.21 Father absence is an issue intimately related to the outcomes of
being raised in mother-only households. The central
question is, “What is lost, apart from things related
to income, when fathers are not part of children’s
lives?” Undoubtedly, in households in which another adult is absent, mothers are deprived of the
emotional and physical support of another committed parent with whom to share child-rearing and
housekeeping responsibilities. This circumstance can
produce distress and fatigue for the mother and
leave many desirable child-focused activities undone
and many appeals for attention and affection unrequited. But what in addition is lost when an adult
male, especially a father, is not present for a child?
“We know that the father’s closeness and friendliness to his
children will have a vital effect on their spirits and character
for the rest of their lives. So the time for him to begin being a
real father is right at the start.”22
A significant proportion of children in motheronly households have at least weekly contact with
their father, 30.3% living with divorced mothers and
38.5% living with never-married mothers. Although
the frequency of contact with nonresident fathers
seems to have little or no impact on children’s wellbeing, the quality and intensity of interaction with
their father and the closeness children feel toward
their father likely is key to children’s adjustment.
Fathers can have a powerful influence on the development and future of their children. However, the
mere presence of a father is far less important than
the nature of his involvement with his children.
When fathers play a visible and nurturing role in
their children’s lives, the children have better emotional and social outcomes17 and are more likely to
have stronger coping and adaptation skills, be better
equipped to solve problems, stay in school longer,
have longer-lasting relationships, and have higher
work productivity.23 Fathers’ involvement also has
beneficial effects for children in terms of educational
and economic attainment, delinquent behavior, and
psychologic well-being.24 Regular involvement of fathers with their high-risk infants has yielded improved cognitive outcomes for the child.25
Fathers can be as nurturing as mothers can; however, their styles of play and conversation seem to be
different. Some of these differences reflect the different settings and circumstances in which parent-child
interactions occur. Because fathers, in general, spend
less time with their children than mothers do, they
may interact more intensely. Although mothers continue to shoulder a disproportionate share of household and child-rearing responsibilities, over the past
several decades, fathers have increased their family
time. Men today not only are spending more time at
home than did their fathers, but also are spending
more time as primary caregivers for their children,
expressing interest in having custody of children
after a divorce, and heading single-parent households. Public policy has not taken into account these
trends, and most states do not actively enforce a
father’s right to spend time with his child.
There seems to be little about the biologic sex of
the parent that distinctively affects his or her influence on children. The characteristics of the father as
a parent rather than as a man are most likely to
influence child development. However, gender roles
and associated masculine and feminine behaviors,
while reflecting early life imprinting of the brain
with testosterone and/or other androgens, are certainly learned from examples in children’s lives. Although living with a father and a mother provides
powerful models for a variety of social relationships
and roles, including gender roles, children may find
influential role models outside their nuclear family.26
Same-Sex Parents*
A substantial number of children live with parents
who are gay or lesbian. Many of these children are
from heterosexual marriages that have dissolved;
some are born or adopted into lesbian or gay households. It is estimated that 8 to 10 million citizens in
the United States, adults and children, have at least 1
homosexual parent. Because of negative stereotypes
and stigmatization, these families may face ostracism
and social isolation. Societal (cultural and legal) biases may prevent open disclosure of a parent’s sexual orientation to the child, school, friends, family,
the community, and the pediatrician. Deprived of
opportunities for open discussion, these families
may experience some difficulty obtaining ordinary
social support. Many opportunities exist to support
these families, reduce discrimination, and provide
individualized, nonjudgmental care. These families
and children appear to be resilient. A substantial
number of studies have been done to explore the
outcomes for these children, although these studies
are hampered by small sample sizes and a homogeneity of the families that have been studied. That
research has found that parental sexual orientation
per se has no measurable effect on the quality of
parent-child relationships or on children’s mental
health or social adjustment.27–29 Certainly, these children’s experiences are unique and some differences
*A minority of the Task Force (Marilyn M. Billingsley, MD, and Linda D.
Meloy, MD), although supportive of the report, take exception to the section
on same-sex parenting. We truly believe that all children, regardless of the
circumstances of their rearing, deserve the best possible pediatric care. The
evidence supporting the number of children involved is not scientifically
convincing. The data of positive long-term outcomes for children who are
raised in same-sex-parent homes is collected from small and nonrandom
samples; therefore, it cannot be generalized for the entire population.
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should be expected. For example, although there is
less research on the subject, children with gay or
lesbian parents appear less inclined to conform rigidly to those social roles traditionally defined by
gender than do children in the general population.28
idemic of new morbidities that are evidence of children’s inability to cope without the social support of
their families.
The child as he grows has a relation not only to his family but
also to the culture within which his family is a small but
integral unit.35
Grandparents as Parents
Approximately 4 million children in the United
States are being raised by their grandparents instead
of their parents.30 Grandparents assume parental responsibility for many reasons, but most include tragedy, illness, substance abuse, or young age of the
biologic parent. In these families, role confusion, custody battles, financial difficulties, and health problems on the part of the grandparents may complicate
the difficulties inherent in parenting.31
Approximately 75% of divorced people eventually
remarry and 65% of remarriages involve children
from previous marriages and, thus, form stepfamilies. Currently, approximately 8% of children live in
a stepfamily in which they have not been adopted by
their stepparent; another 7% to 9% live with a cohabiting parent. During the course of their lives, approximately 30% of all children are likely to spend some
time in a stepfamily if that term includes cohabiting
adult couples.32 Unfortunately, almost half of all remarriages involving children end in divorce before
children are 18 years of age. Nearly all children in
stepfamilies have lived in a single-parent household,
and nearly all of them experience having more than
2 parenting adults. When a parent remarries, the
child’s life is made more complicated and is again
disrupted. Having an additional parent in the household potentially increases the amount of adult time
available to a child. It does not necessarily improve
the experience for the child, and, in general, children
who are raised in a stepfamily do about as well as do
children of single mothers.3 Children who live with
stepmothers who do not have regular contact with
their birth mother are less likely to have routine
doctor and dentist visits or to have a place for usual
medical or sick care, and they are less likely to wear
seat belts.33 Like children in single-parent families,
children who live in stepfamilies are more likely to
experience unintentional injuries; this appears to be
attributable to higher exposure to psychosocial risks
among these types of families.34 Certainly, the circumstances that led to the dissolution of their first
family can adversely affect children’s subsequent relationships and adjustment. Despite the more frequent poor outcomes for children in stepfamilies,
many do well and benefit from the presence of another adult and the support it provides for their birth
Although children’s health is better today than it
has ever been, this is true only in a biologic sense.
The social strains on families—manifested in their
extreme as parental mental illness, substance abuse,
violence, and divorce— have spawned a growing ep-
Families with children are poorer, on average, than
are families without children. The reasons for this
pattern and for the high rate of child poverty in the
United States include the decrease in real wages of
low-wage and entry-level workers, women’s lower
wages coupled with the rise in nonmarital births and
mother-only families, unpaid child support from
noncustodial parents, and the trade-off of wages for
stay-at-home child care. Although children who
grow up in poverty certainly have a lower standard
of living than do children who are raised in more
affluent households, they do not necessarily have a
lower quality of life. Nonetheless, without countervailing opportunity, poverty and its accumulating
risks diminish poor children’s health, educational
achievement, and ability to contribute to the economy and society as a whole during their lifetimes.
Because family poverty limits opportunity and increases the likelihood of a variety of risk factors, it is
the single strongest predictor of diminished health
and well-being for children. Children of poor families are considerably more likely to be born prematurely or with a low birth weight and have considerably higher mortality rates throughout childhood.
They are at high risk of depression, low self-confidence, peer conflict, and conduct disorders. They are
more likely to witness or be the object of violence in
their families and neighborhoods. Poverty is also
associated with higher rates of chronic health problems and injuries in children. Poor families are more
likely to experience adolescent school failure and
dropout, teen pregnancy, and substance use and
Much has been written about the feminization of
poverty, which simply means that poverty is much
more likely to affect women and women-headed
households. The reasons for this pattern are multiple
and include nonmarital pregnancies, school dropout,
limited career opportunities and lower salaries available to women, high rates of mother-only families
and the difficulty of providing for a family with only
1 paycheck, and the lack of financial support from
nonresident fathers. Government agencies are attempting to address this last issue of abrogated paternal responsibility by more aggressively trying to
determine paternity at birth and when families apply
for public assistance and by assisting single mothers
to obtain child support.
Welfare reform has crystallized some of the paradox that pervades social policy. Federal and state
policies now curtail access to public assistance programs and limit eligibility to promote economic selfsufficiency of poor families. Unfortunately, replacing
welfare with low-paying jobs has not enabled most
recipient families to rise above poverty-level incomes. In addition, the many poor mothers who
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enter the workforce now must find child care for
their young children. However, despite some public
subsidies, access to high-quality child care is inadequate in this country, and such care generally is
available only to those who are able to pay higher
fees. Ironically, although public sentiment supports
mothers staying at home with their young children,
public policy precludes that option for many poor
families. Furthermore, many employers of such
mothers do not provide benefits, such as family
health insurance, vacation, sick leave, and flexible
hours, needed by most families. These circumstances
are particularly likely to have an impact on the
health of poor children who are at greater risk of
chronic conditions.
It is extremely difficult to disentangle the outcomes of poverty itself from other associated social
determinants of health, such as being raised in a
single-parent family. Risk factors interact, and their
effects are more than additive. Poor families are
more likely to have lower levels of educational attainment; fewer social resources; less stable personal
relationships; more health risk behaviors, including
poor nutrition and substance use; and a greater frequency of stressful life events (eg, inadequate housing, contact with the police, economic insecurity, job
loss, family illness). Furthermore, because singleparent, female-headed households are among the
poorest families, it is not clear to what degree poverty, family structure, and other factors are responsible for the poorer outcomes of children in these
Thus, the stresses of poverty take their toll on
parents and tend to alter their child-rearing behaviors and expectations. Children in poor families are
more likely to be unsupervised and, thus, more exposed to the physical and social dangers of their
environment. Parents with low incomes are more
commonly socially isolated and, thus, have fewer
social supports and role models. Research has shown
that the consequences of stress and poverty include
having less time and less patience for their children
and deriving less satisfaction from being a parent.
Parents with higher rates of psychologic distress and
illness may be less able to nurture their children.
A style of parenting labeled “authoritative” has
been found to yield the best outcomes for children.
Authoritative parenting involves a combination of
affection and attentive responsiveness to children’s
needs, along with clear, firm expectations for developmentally appropriate, socially responsible behavior. In contrast, parenting in the circumstance of
poverty characteristically tends to be less warm and
responsive and more inconsistent and punitive.
There is good evidence that such “authoritarian”
parenting adversely affects children’s development,
including their self-esteem and academic achievement, and fosters problem behaviors.36,37 Certainly,
because child-rearing practices are to some extent
shaped by culture and the immediate social environment of families, advice to parents needs to take
those factors into account.
Although poverty may influence parenting behaviors, low-income parents are no less emotionally in1552
vested in their children than are other parents. Love
is not influenced by socioeconomic status. Low-income parents usually are aware of how their social
circumstances and emotional states affect their interactions with their children, but when such families
lack the personal and social resources of other families, they tend to perceive fewer alternatives to their
behaviors and can be frustrated in their efforts to
effect change and provide their children with different experiences.
Financial Access to Care
Families may experience financial barriers to gaining access to appropriate, timely health care. These
barriers may be attributable to the family’s lack of
health insurance; their lack of insurance coverage for
dental, mental health, or other specialized services;
or their inability to pay directly for care. Many uninsured families have at least 1 employed family
member whose employer does not provide insurance
or does not provide dependent coverage. Research
from the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research (now the Agency for Healthcare Research and
Quality) reported that the increase in the proportion
of uninsured children is linked to the proportion of
single-parent families.38 Limited family income also
can be a barrier to preventive care for families whose
health insurance requires a substantial copayment or
deductible. In addition, few child health insurance
policies or plans will provide additional reimbursement to primary care physicians to address family
issues that are having an adverse impact on children’s health status.
In addition to insurance limitations, poor families
often must make difficult choices about which essential needs to meet with a limited income. Low-income families also are more likely to have health care
located farther from their residence, less access to
efficient transportation, and less latitude within their
job to attend to needs of their children. Consequently, health resources are often sought in the
evenings or on weekends and from emergency care
providers. The financial costs of care in such settings
are much higher and can add to families’ outstanding debt. Families whose primary language is not
English may experience communication barriers to
care and a limited appreciation of their culturally
influenced beliefs and practices. Occasionally, health
care professionals and systems actively discourage
poor families or families who are otherwise different
from most patients from seeking care from them. All
of these factors may lead families to delay obtaining
necessary health care and contribute to poorer health
status of all family members. Undoubtedly, the
higher prevalence of some chronic disorders among
poor children and the lower ratings of health status
which low-income parents ascribe to themselves and
their children have their roots in the social circumstances of their families.39 Although publicly funded
programs, such as Medicaid and the State Children’s
Health Insurance Program, have improved children’s access to health insurance, they do not necessarily address the many other barriers associated
with family poverty.
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Working Parents, Stress, and Time
“Americans hold parents responsible for what’s happening to
children and for what kids are doing. . . even as the public
acknowledges that parenting is harder than ever.” Public
Agenda Online (
Unfortunately, the stresses families face are increasing, and children are experiencing the consequences. Many of these stresses are work related.
“Two-parent family” usually means that 2 parents
work, and most people are working longer hours.
Although family-friendly work environments are increasingly common, they remain the exception. Parents seem to have maintained the amount of time
they spend with their children. However, time together as a family has diminished, as has time together as a couple, time spent with friends and
neighbors, and time alone. Young children spend
much of their waking hours in the care of someone
other than a parent, and older children are often
unsupervised after school. As many as 15 million
children come home to an empty house each day.
Somehow, probably at the cost of time together and
personal time, parents have managed to maintain the
amount of time they spend with their children. Naturally, parents in 2-parent households have and are
able to spend more time with their children than do
single parents.40
The proportion of families in which the single
parent or both parents work has increased steadily.
The percentage of children who live with their parents who had at least 1 parent working full-time all
year increased 5 percentage points to 77% between
1993 and 1998. A large share of this increase was
attributable to the increase in the percentage of children who live with employed single mothers, which
increased from 33% in 1993 to 44% in 1998. Among
2-parent families, 71% have both parents in the labor
force. Fifty percent of mothers with infants and 64%
of mothers with children younger than 6 years are in
the workforce, most in full-time jobs. These employment patterns have decreased the opportunities for
neighbors to know and rely on one another and
share responsibility for monitoring and mentoring
In large measure, these trends in workforce participation obscure that many women work out of economic necessity and would rather stay at home with
their children. Over the past 2 decades, the proportion of working women who work full-time for reason of personal satisfaction has remained relatively
constant, whereas the proportion who work for financial reasons has increased by nearly 64%. In a
recent public opinion survey, 41% of women thought
that a family in which the father worked and the
mother stayed at home was best for raising children;
only 17% said it was beneficial for children and
society to have mothers work outside the home. The
highest-ranking concern among women is combining family and work. A public opinion survey found
that 79% of respondents agreed that “it would be
better if [mothers] could stay home and just take care
of the house and children.” Reflecting this view is an
increasing call to encourage mothers to stay home
with their children and even to provide support for
stay-at-home mothers and fathers through tax policies. Conversely, out-of-home child care of high
quality is beneficial to children who are at high risk
of poor developmental outcomes. When such care is
provided, it can have a positive effect on children’s
cognitive development, social competence, and behavior. Child care of such high quality is, however,
expensive and difficult to access.
“The conclusion that working mothers are not going to return
home—that, on the contrary, their attachment to the labor
force is likely to grow— has profound implications for public
Many parents, both men and women, report significant conflict between their work and family obligations. Today’s jobs consume more time and more
emotional energy, leaving less of both for the work of
parenting. Work schedules can be unpredictable, and
nearly one third of parents with young children
work evenings; nights; and rotating, split, and variable shifts. Low-paying and entry-level jobs tend to
not provide the types of benefits that young families
need, such as health insurance coverage for family
members, assistance finding child care, flexible
hours, job sharing, telecommuting, financial assistance, and parental leave. Working mothers are less
likely to seek medical care when their children have
mild illnesses or need well-child care, although they
make equal use of services in cases of more serious
Parents’ employment and experiences at work can
influence child rearing in different ways and vary
with families’ circumstances. In general, fatigue, unhappiness, and stress at work can have adverse effects on parents’ physical health and undermine their
self-esteem and emotional well-being; parents also
may bring home their dissatisfaction. Parents who
experience higher levels of stress and strain have
children who develop less well. Conversely, parents
who are gratified by their work are more likely to
interact in positive ways at home. The effects of a
mother’s employment on the family are far less clear
and seem to depend on multiple additional factors,
including mother’s marital status and relationship,
access to assistance with child care and housework,
income, and satisfaction with the work itself.
Through their work, parents learn or learn to value
certain styles of relating to others. They tend also to
bring these values home. Thus, parents who work in
autocratic or coercive environments are more likely
to practice authoritarian parenting. Parents whose
work involves self-direction and independence are
likely to support those traits in their children.
In the aggregate, current research fails to show any
consistent support for the concern that mother-child
attachment, family relationships, or children’s development is harmed when mothers work. However,
each family’s situation is unique. Problems in these
arenas, however, may signal that any 1 or several
personal, family, job, or workplace factors are causing stress within the family. In addition, there is
some evidence that children appreciate significant
cognitive gains when their mothers stay home for at
least 2 to 3 years after giving birth.42
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Parent’s Own Health
Pediatricians have both opportunity and reason to
take note of the health of their young patients’ parents. Parents’ mental health affects their individual
functioning; social relationships with their spouses,
partners, co-workers, and other adults; and their
child-rearing behaviors.43,44 Rates of depression
among mothers range from 12% to 40% or 50%, with
the highest rates among women who are poor or
homeless or have a chronic health problem. Five key
risk factors associated with the onset of depression
include 1) having a parent or other close biologic
relative with a mood disorder; 2) experiencing a
severely stressful event; 3) having low self-esteem, a
sense of low self-efficacy, and a sense of helplessness
or hopelessness; 4) being female; and 5) living in
poverty.45 Mothers who live at the lower levels of
poverty report higher levels of depressive symptoms.46 Depression among women is particularly
high during the postpartum period, a time of frequent contact with child health care professionals.
Maternal depression can adversely affect family
functioning, parents’ attitudes, and mother-child interactions. Depressed mothers tend to be less interactive with their children, and their interactions are
more negative, unsupportive, and intrusive.47 Young
children of depressed mothers are at increased risk of
developmental, behavioral, and emotional problems.
Depressed mothers also tend to exaggerate their children’s behavior problems, thus creating a cycle that
increases the children’s risk.
Most maternal depression goes unidentified and
untreated. Only approximately 10% of women with
postpartum depression discuss their symptoms with
a health care professional. Mothers of low birth
weight infants, especially infants classified at risk of
health or developmental problems, have high rates
of depression that may persist for several years if
untreated. Because of a variety of life circumstances,
some mothers and fathers who are not clinically
depressed are still emotionally unavailable to their
children. Pediatricians have the opportunity to identify maternal depression, because children of depressed mothers are brought for health care more
frequently than are children of mothers without depression.48 They can also identify parents who are
emotionally unavailable not only to their child but
also to one another.
The effects of parents’ physical health and health
behaviors on their family are less well documented.
There seems to be some positive correlation between
maternal and child health status and mother’s
health-seeking behaviors during pregnancy to predict, to some extent, subsequent rates of obtaining
well-child care. Certainly, being uninsured is a family condition not restricted to children or adults and
affects access to health care.49 Most mothers have
health concerns and problems of their own, and most
have some appreciation of the impact of their own
health on their children’s well-being. Surveys have
found that most mothers would welcome or not
mind at all if pediatricians were to screen for parental health problems and initiate a referral for care.50
Parental alcohol and other substance abuse are
important problems that are commonly overlooked
or not addressed. The detrimental effects of intrauterine drug exposure have been well publicized.
The effects of growing up with substance-abusing
parents on the social, psychological, and emotional
well-being of children and their families are less well
appreciated. Ten percent of adults in the United
States are addicted to alcohol or other drugs, and
parents in substance-abusing families are more likely
to be depressed. Most children who are born into
substance-abusing families develop normally and
become socialized, competent, and self-confident individuals. However, their family life is often disrupted, structure and discipline may be lacking, and
family conflict and violence are more prevalent than
in non–substance-abusing households. Alcohol and
other substance abuse erode the functioning of families and may contribute to poverty, divorce, and
violence within the home. These children are at
greater risk of abusing alcohol and other drugs themselves and have higher rates of behavior problems.51
The implications of these social trends and parents’ own circumstances and health on family functioning and structure are profound. Children’s
health and well-being are jeopardized when decreased time and energy interfere with parents’ ability to nurture, teach, and enjoy their children; when
families are or feel unconnected to surrounding society; when decreased family income and education
foreshorten life options and experiences; and when
compromised contact with parents or extended families limits material and social support.
Children learn much about relationships from the examples
they observe and experience in their homes.
Counseling, Referral, and Relationship Education
Research shows that marital failure is highly predictable. This has led to the development of a number of marriage education courses designed to decrease known risks. There is evidence that
behaviorally oriented, skills-based marriage preparation programs can lead to behavioral changes that
may help prevent the emergence of marital dysfunction.52 There are also some data suggesting that brief,
skill-based educational programs for couples can
“increase couple satisfaction, improve communication skills, reduce negative conflict behaviors including violence, and may prevent separation and divorce.”53 Courses may focus on such topics as
communication and problem-solving training, empathy training, clarification of relationship expectations, and enhancing sexual relationships.54 –56 Pediatricians traditionally have played a role in referring
families to community resources, and relationship
education courses can be one such resource.
Curricula and programs must be developed to help couples to
grow together and accommodate each other and thereby
lessen our society’s rate of divorce.57
Attempts to strengthen marriages and families
have traditionally come from churches, synagogues,
mosques, and other local community-based organizations that espouse values and offer marriage en-
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richment opportunities. Recently, Florida passed legislation encouraging couples who are contemplating
marriage to participate in a premarital education
class and requiring high school students and couples
who are seeking divorce to participate in relationship
skills training programs. Currently, most high
schools discuss marriage as part of a health or life
skills class. According to a published review of commonly used textbooks published between 1993 and
1997, courses tend to focus on self-esteem and selfactualization and generally avoid topics such as love,
religion, commitment, and values. Although all of
these efforts are an acknowledgment that the consequences of discord in marriage and of divorce are
costly for society as well as for children involved,
there does not appear to be a public consensus on
whether these topics belong within school curricula.
Families’ Social Support
The quality and extent of social support available
to parents affect their children. Social support has
been defined as information leading to 1 or more of
3 outcomes: 1) the feelings of being cared for; 2) the
belief that one is loved, esteemed, and valued; and 3)
the sense of belonging to a reciprocal network.58
Parents do better with raising children and maintaining their spousal relationship when they have social
supports outside the family; they feel more competent and deal better with stress. Parents’ own experience with social networks and their own relationships are models and resources for their children,
and mothers’ social networks are a likely source of
friends for their young children. Parents’ perceived
support strongly influences child rearing. Predictably, children from families with low social support
are much more likely to have psychosocial problems.59
The communities in which families live are an
essential element in the formation and support of
strong, stable families. Ironically, families most in
need of communities with good resources are least
likely to reside in them. Single-parent households,
for example, are more likely to live in neighborhoods
with higher rates of poverty, female-headed households, welfare use, and high school failure and dropout.3 Mothers with the least support from their extended families have the weakest ties to other
sources and have the highest levels of distress—
circumstances that tend to make mothers less emotionally available to their children and to other
adults. Children do better when their families believe
that they are part of a community of shared norms
and values and mutual or reciprocal obligations—
that is, when the families have social capital.60 Socially isolated families are more likely to have values
and beliefs that are discordant with their community’s values, more likely to feel alienated, and less
likely to adopt conventional child-rearing practices
and health habits.3 They are also more likely to abuse
their children.
“Caring, compassionate, and knowledgeable pediatricians
must address the needs of their patients and all children in the
context of the community.”61
Religious or spiritual communities are an important source of support for many families, and religion plays a central role in the lives of many Americans. A growing body of literature has found
associations between religiosity or spirituality and
health, illness, and well-being. Regular participation
in congregate religious activities has been associated
with a variety of positive outcomes for families and
children. Family stability is higher among more religiously observant families, which alone bodes well
for children. Adolescent risk behaviors, such as substance use and violence, are lower among such families. The benefits of religious participation and spirituality for families may derive from a variety of
associated factors, but its value to many families
merits its consideration in the course of pediatric
Residential Stability
Contributing to social connectedness is living in a
community sufficiently long to develop friendships
and feel a part of that community. Approximately
18% of children move each year, a figure that has
stayed constant or decreased slightly during the past
3 decades. Families with younger children are somewhat more likely to move than are those with older
adolescents. Research has demonstrated a strong relationship between residential stability and child
well-being, with frequent moves associated with
such negative outcomes as dropping out of high
school, delinquency, depression, early initiation of
sexual activity, and nonmarital teenaged births. Families who move out of communities also disrupt the
continuity of their children’s medical care.
Given the importance of the family context to children’s health, how ready and able are pediatricians
to provide family-oriented care? Awareness of the
need for such an orientation by the profession is not
new. In 1978, the Task Force on Pediatric Education
noted a dramatic increase in the recognition of child
health problems associated with poverty, a deteriorating physical environment, changing family structures, and other social and psychologic factors.62
Their report made special mention that in the future,
pediatricians would be called on increasingly to
manage children with problems of a developmental,
psychologic, and social nature and recommended
that all pediatricians have the skills to cope with
these problems. A recent study found that the number of children who visit pediatricians’ offices with
recognized psychosocial problems more than doubled between 1979 and 1996.63 In 1999, the Task
Force on the Future of Pediatric Education II reaffirmed the earlier report and began their own recommendations stating, “Pediatric medical education at
all levels must be based on the health needs of children in the context of the family and community.”
That report also recommended that “pediatricians
should collaborate with families and other child
health professionals . . . in the communities they
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No pediatrician finishes training without the realization that
he is almost always working with at least 2 patients simultaneously—a child and a parent.65
Pediatric training is strongly influenced by the
Residency Review Committee on Pediatrics’ Program
Requirements for Residency Education in Pediatrics. The
2000 edition of that document mentions the family in
several sections, including those addressing inpatient experience, training in behavioral/developmental pediatrics, and adolescent medicine.66 Training programs are expected to provide residents the
opportunity to learn “interviewing techniques with
specific emphasis on behavioral, psychosocial, environmental, and family unit correlates of disease” and
“utilization of appropriate members of the health
care team to ensure comprehensive yet cost-effective
care of the patient and family.” Residents also are
expected to develop appropriate skills in family
structure; adoption; foster care; interviewing parents
and children; needs of children at risk (eg, those in
poverty, those from fragmented families, victims of
child abuse or neglect); and impact of chronic diseases, terminal conditions, and death on patients and
their families. The adolescent section of the guidelines includes residency training in “psychosocial
issues, such as peer and family relations, depression,
eating disorders, substance abuse, suicide, [and]
school performance.”
There is limited information about how comfortable pediatricians feel with managing family issues;
no survey has asked explicitly about those skills. A
recent survey by the Task Force on the Future of
Pediatric Education II found that only small percentages of respondents believed their training was poor
in the following topics related to working with families: caring for patients from different socioeconomic
backgrounds (4.5%), providing preventive care counseling (9.4%), caring for patients from different cultures (15.9%), and coordinating patient care with
community services and resources (23.2%).67 A survey of recently trained pediatricians found with a
few exceptions, none of which related to child or
family psychosocial issues, that they feel well prepared for practice.68 However, in a recent survey of
parents of young children enrolled in Medicaid,
fewer than half (49%) reported that their child’s physician had inquired about psychosocial issues and
safety within the family.69
Continuing medical education (CME) opportunities for pediatricians abound, but the family context
of child health does not seem to be a common topic.
The AAP offers a large number of courses and other
educational opportunities of interest to its members.
The AAP does not have data on the number of lectures that have been given on various topics. A number of courses have addressed topics of behavioral
pediatrics, and, recently, some have focused specifically on family issues. At annual meetings, the individual pediatrician decides which sessions to attend,
and no requirements for CME on family topics exist.
AAP publications play a central role in CME activities. Pediatrics in Review, the AAP journal specifically designed as part of a continuing education program, published a review article, “Family-Focused
Pediatrics,” in 199570 and has published various articles on topics of concern to families. Pediatrics, the
signature journal of the AAP, publishes articles on a
variety of topics. A brief review of articles published
in that journal during the past decade found that
among more than 15 000 citations were 69 articles
that mentioned “family” as a keyword. Of these articles, nearly one third dealt with chronic illness; the
next most common theme was psychosocial and
community influences on health and health care, and
approximately one third seemed to deal specifically
with pediatricians’ recognition and management of
family issues.
The AAP produces a number of manuals and
monographs to serve as reference materials and to
assist in establishing standards of care for its members and other child health professionals. These materials and a number of others produced for pediatricians to use as part of parent, patient, and health
education are reviewed later in this report.
Family advocates, especially those for children
with special health care needs, make a distinction
between family-focused and family-centered care.
Family-focused care implies practices that focus on
the family as the unit of intervention but are not
empowering or based on a recognition of family
strengths and competence. Family-centered care includes the latter characteristics and includes “the
philosophies, principles, and practices that put the
family at the heart or center of services; the family as
the driving force.”71 Most pediatricians report that
they involve families in the decision making around
the health care of their child and make an effort to
understand the needs of the family as well as the
child.72 Family pediatrics, or family-oriented pediatrics, like family-centered care, requires an active,
productive partnership between the pediatrician and
the family, but it also extends the responsibilities of
the pediatrician to include screening, assessment,
and referral of parents with physical, emotional, or
social problems that might adversely affect the
health and emotional or social well-being of their
Family pediatrics extends the responsibilities of the pediatrician to include screening, assessment, and referral of parents
with physical, emotional, or social problems that might adversely affect the health and emotional or social well-being of
their child.
Families’ Expectations
Parents want guidance raising their children, and
although they consider pediatricians to be good
sources of information and support, they seek their
counsel inconsistently. There also is evidence that
pediatricians and parents communicate poorly about
children’s mental health problems. Pediatricians are
unusually well positioned to help parents, having
earned their respect and trust over the course of their
professional relationship. Parents’ confidence in their
pediatrician rests on the professional expertise displayed when treating children’s illness but often extends to behavioral and social issues. In 1978, the
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Task Force on Pediatric Education surveyed a sample of mothers to learn what they thought about the
quality of medical care their children received. They
felt that pediatricians were the best-qualified physicians to care for their children and reported that they
would seek their counsel for a range of children’s
psychosocial problems. Mothers also have reported
that physicians are their main source of parenting
information. Still, in the course of child health visits,
parents give priority to discussion of physical health
and development over behavioral or family issues,
although mothers of higher socioeconomic status are
more interested in the latter compared with other
Most parents, especially parents of young children, believe it is appropriate to discuss psychosocial
problems with their child’s physician, are receptive
to information from pediatricians, and would find
more information helpful, but fewer than half actually discuss these issues with their physician.74,75
Only 15% to 20% of parents report that their child’s
physician assesses psychosocial issues of the family.
Among those topics for which parents report the
greatest gaps between the guidance they need and
what they get are in areas of their child’s communication, behavior, and discipline.76 Parents believe
that pediatricians are meeting the physical needs of
their children, but most (79%) believe that they could
use more information in child rearing.74,77 Overall,
surveys find that today’s parents of young children
are awed by their responsibilities and wish ardently
that their children will grow up to be happy, healthy,
productive citizens but struggle with the enormous
responsibility of ensuring good outcomes for their
children. The health care system provides only partial assistance during this critical period. Much more
could be done to support parents in fulfilling their
most important responsibility. The focus and the
process of well-child care could encourage discussion about child rearing. Currently, family problems
often come to light through a culturally acceptable
physical or behavioral complaint. Sometimes they
are voiced at the end of the visit when no more time
remains. The availability of resources and referrals at
these critical, teachable times may be key to resolving
the family’s problem.
Structure and Staffing
As of a decade ago, approximately 70% of pediatric practices offered some evening hours; currently,
approximately 43% say they always and 18% say
they sometimes offer weekday evening appointments.72 According to an earlier survey, approximately 20% restricted evening service to the care of
sick children. Approximately the same proportion of
practices (70%) offer Saturday morning appointments; a decade ago, approximately one third of
those practices restricted care to ill children, but no
more recent data are available. Anecdotal reports
suggest a recent trend toward fewer evening and
weekend hours in some areas of the country.
The proportion of AAP members who are female
has grown over time. In 1987, 26.9% of members
surveyed were women; by 1992, 36.4% were women.
This is reflective of the growing numbers of female
pediatricians in general. According to the American
Medical Association’s 1998 data, 46.4% of pediatricians who practice in the United States are female—a
proportion that is expected to rise, because 65% of
categorical pediatrics residents in 1999 were female.
Also notable is that on completion of their training,
more women are entering general pediatric practice
than subspecialty practice. One university-based pediatric primary care practice found not only that
female physicians were spending more time with
patients and in providing encouragement and reassurance but also that parents were more satisfied
with female physicians.78 In addition to the pediatrician, the office staff establishes the emotional tone
and policies of pediatric practices.
Contents and Problems Seen
Pediatricians provide two thirds of all pediatric
care to children through age 18, and preventive visits
constitute approximately 27% of that care.79 Pediatricians spend approximately 20% of a typical day
counseling patients or their parents, but there are
very few reliable data about what pediatricians actually discuss with parents. In a 1996 periodic survey
of AAP fellows, 85% of respondents believed that
ensuring a healthy family environment was a somewhat to very important goal of preventive care, although they ranked it last after goals involving physical health, development, developing a supportive
relationship, emotional health, and safety issues.80
Ensuring a healthy family environment was also
viewed as the goal least successfully achieved. Although they rated family stress and substance abuse
as important problems, they felt relatively unable to
prevent these problems and had lower levels of confidence in counseling about these topics.
In a 1996 periodic survey of AAP fellows, 85% of respondents
believed that ensuring a healthy family environment was a
somewhat to very important goal of preventive care, but it
was also viewed as the goal least successfully achieved.80
Child care is consistently reported as the dominant
issue in the lives of most young families. Eight of 10
pediatricians say that they routinely inquire about
time spent in child care among patients younger than
4 years, although fewer inquire about child care for
older children. Most report that they initiate discussions with parents about returning to work after
childbirth and about breastfeeding while working.81
Fully 79% believe that they should be involved in a
family’s child care decisions.
Although there is great pressure for pediatricians
to be productive, the average number of minutes
devoted to a typical well-child visit has increased
and now stands at approximately 15 minutes.82
However, the portion of such visits that is devoted to
activities in which a family problem might be identified and initially managed seems to vary greatly.83
Services Provided
Preventive services that pediatricians provide are
most strongly influenced by the significance they
ascribe to a problem; their experience, comfort, and
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knowledge in specific topics; and their perceptions of
their effectiveness. Time available for counseling
ranked somewhat lower as a determining factor. Reimbursement was generally believed to be inadequate but seemed not to affect reported provision of
preventive care. Slightly more than half of respondents (53%) believed that they had enough time to
provide counseling to parents.80 Among a group of
physicians who participated in a program to promote developmentally appropriate care, between
one half and three quarters discuss maternal depression and appropriate discipline practices, but less
than half routinely discuss domestic violence. Factors that were most commonly reported to affect the
ability to deliver the best-quality care were shortage
of support staff; limited referral sources; managed
care restrictions on referrals or special services; excessive paperwork; and lack of time for follow-up,
teaching parents, and answering questions.84
The source of payment for health care drives the
policy and, to an unknown extent, the practice of
health care by dictating services that are reimbursable and outcomes that are reportable. For example,
children whose care is publicly funded have significantly fewer well-child visits than do privately insured children.85 Prenatal care visits are recommended by the AAP, yet when pediatricians offer
them, it is done without the expectation of reimbursement. Behavioral health “carve-outs” sometimes prevent primary care physicians from being
reimbursed for counseling or other behavioral or
mental health services and may even prevent parents
from seeking help. In addition, physicians and physicians’ organizations no longer serve as the primary
source of medical wisdom regarding appropriate
benefits, treatments, and health outcomes from a
business perspective. Corporate benefits managers,
managed care organizations, health care accreditation organizations, and insurance companies are setting these standards. Payers for health care services
recognize that only the most cost-effective care
should be rendered to minimize the tax burden (for
government-sponsored programs) or the health premium (for private insurance models). Changes in
reimbursement are driven by payer preferences, and
these are determined by perceived and real cost of
care versus benefit, health outcomes, and employee
and member demand. In our current health care
environment, the focus has been on efficiency of care
as determined by these factors. However, important
indicators of quality health care, such as family-focused or family-centered care, are not tracked or
Innovative Concepts, Services, and Programs
There have been a number of efforts to promote
preventive services and, to some extent, family pediatric care. For example, among its essential elements, the AAP definition of a medical home includes linking families to needed services, respecting
families’ cultural backgrounds, and providing family-centered care. The idea of family-centered care
itself has been championed by the federal Maternal
and Child Health Bureau and by parents of children
with special needs. Case management and care coordination programs generally focus on the needs of
the family as well as the needs of the child. Group
well-child care and care of children with chronic
health problems often promote the development of
parent-to-parent support.86 Some programs for adolescent parents purposefully involve young fathers
in their child’s care, but other rewards for spousal
attendance are rare. High-quality preventive care is
promoted by health insurance programs, including
Medicaid, which do not require copayments or deductibles for preventive services. Reach Out and
Read programs provide books as a component of
and as an incentive for attending preventive care
visits. The Healthy Steps demonstration projects
(Commonwealth Fund) provide an expanded and
family-oriented developmental component to child
health supervision. Some pediatric practices include
a child psychologist or developmental expert. Some
practices and managed care plans make special efforts to coordinate physical and mental health care,
and some plans allow self-referral for mental health
and substance abuse services.
Group-based parent education programs, integrated into pediatric practices or community based,
are effective resources for families. They can promote
positive behavior change in parental perceptions and
objective measures of children’s behavior and can
prevent risk behaviors among adolescents.87,88 On
the level of individual families, a review of parent
education approaches found that parents respond
best to brief, verbal information that focuses on their
specific area of concern. Reinforcement with appropriate written material is helpful for more complex
issues. Modeling and role playing are useful to address problematic parenting and child behavior.89
Research has demonstrated that agreement on problem recognition between physicians and patients
yields better compliance. Media, such as advertising
campaigns or office posters, can be helpful for broadening parents’ range of interests.
Parents respond best to brief, verbal information that focuses
on their specific area of concern.
Family Lives of Pediatricians
Historically, little attention has been paid to residents’ families during residency training, although
interest in the impact of medical training on the
families of physicians increased as women were admitted to medical school in greater numbers beginning in the 1970s. Women have outnumbered men in
pediatric residency training programs since the
1980s. The proportion of women who experience
pregnancy during residency training has been reported to be as high as 50%.90 Most women who
have been pregnant during residency training have
reported that their pregnancy was planned, although
surveys of pediatricians who were pregnant during
residency training have yielded mixed results concerning their feelings about the wisdom of their
choice to become pregnant. According to several
studies, between 0% and 37% of female pediatricians
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who were pregnant during residency training regretted becoming pregnant then or, if they could make
the choice again, would have delayed pregnancy.91–93
The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical
Education has required that there be institutional
parental leave policies for residents. In addition, the
Family and Medical Leave Act94 requires that as
much 12 weeks of leave time (unpaid) be available
for new parents. Although the impact of these policies has not been studied carefully, it is likely that
their implementation and the gradual increase in
available women role models who have balanced
pregnancy, family life, and a medical career have
decreased emotional stress and guilt among pregnant residents. In summarizing 1 survey of women
who were pediatricians and mothers, it was suggested that “these respondents believed that they
were better pediatricians and better parents than
they would have been had they not pursued both
There have been recommendations that residency
training programs offer shared and part-time training opportunities for pediatric trainees with children
and other family obligations.95 Thus far, there are no
data on the extent to which these recommendations
have been implemented or of the effect of shared or
part-time training on programs or trainees.
In addition to the influence of their professional
training, pediatricians’ beliefs and behaviors regarding family issues are shaped to an unknown extent
by their personal experiences as children, marriage
partners, and parents. Thus, the background of pediatricians as a group may be important to understand. Pediatricians’ own behaviors sometimes serve
as models for families in their practice and in their
communities. A trend revealed by a recent survey of
young pediatricians with a median age of 34 years
found that most (60%) were female.96 Among the
entire surveyed group of young pediatricians (male
and female), 79% were married; 19% were single;
and only 1% were divorced, widowed, or separated.
Two thirds had children younger than 18 years living
at home. Among another sample of female pediatricians with a mean age of 40, 84% were married, and
none younger than 40 years was divorced; 4% of
those older than 40 years were divorced, widowed,
or separated. Among this sample, of women younger
than 40 years, 69% had children at home, whereas
59% of those older than 40 years had children at
Physicians’ marriages seem to be atypical, because
they occur later in life and are more stable, having
somewhat lower rates of divorce than other occupational groups.98 Certainly, the number of pediatric
residents who are married and who have children
has increased over the past several decades.
Approximately half of physicians, 63% male and
45% female, report high levels of marital satisfaction,
although gender differences disappear after adjusting for age. Marital satisfaction was related to having
a supportive spouse and low role conflict (ie, conflicting demands between professional and personal
responsibilities).99 Marriage and parenting seem to
spur male physicians’ commitment to work and
earnings but have the reverse effect for female physicians.100
The proportion of physicians of all types with
children is not well established, although 1 survey
found that approximately two thirds of male and one
third of female physicians have children. AAP member pediatricians seem more likely to have children
(80.5% in 1989) than do other physicians and had an
average of 2.8 children, slightly above the average for
all families with children. Approximately two thirds
of physicians with children were at least moderately
satisfied with their parental roles. The same factors
that affected marital satisfaction (the level of role
conflict and having a supportive spouse) influenced
parental satisfaction; having a salaried practice also
contributed. More female than male physicians have
made career changes for their children (85% vs 35%),
although younger male physicians were more likely
than their older peers to have made a career change
for marriage or children.101
Physicians’ satisfaction with their practices is influenced by a variety of factors, including relationships with patients, autonomy in clinical decision
making, office resources, and professional relationships. Most physicians are satisfied with their overall
practice and income. Among primary care physicians, general pediatricians are, on average, more
satisfied with most aspects of their practices102; in
1989, 85% of AAP member pediatricians reported
being satisfied or very satisfied with their careers.
Physicians who are highly satisfied with their work
are more likely to be satisfied with their marriages
and to have fewer psychiatric symptoms.
There have been few studies on children of pediatricians or on child-rearing practices of pediatricians. A 1989 survey found that 41% of AAP member
pediatricians who responded had spouses who
worked outside the home full time, and another 21%
had spouses who worked part time. Of those with
children younger than 5 years, child care was provided by the spouse 54.9% of the time, 20.4% were
cared for in the home of a nonrelative, and 16.3%
were enrolled in a child care center.103 Pediatricians
reported that their greatest concerns for children of
working mothers were in the areas of discipline and
emotional behavior; of least concern were intellectual
development and nutrition.
Review of Existing AAP Policies
The task force was charged with undertaking a
careful review of existing AAP policies relative to
their impact on family and family function, making
recommendations to committees and the board with
respect to policy modification based on data development and analysis. Although all materials published by the AAP constitute policy, formal polices
are reviewed and continually updated by AAP committees and can be found on the Web site at www.
The task force reviewed 315 AAP policies and
identified those that seemed to have a potential im-
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pact on families and family functioning. These policies range from issues such as vaccine preparations
and Pediatrics Review and Education Program
changes, which are targeted at pediatricians, to issues such as foster care, adoption, and sports participation, in which families’ roles are clearly central.
The review found that 63% of the 315 policies had an
impact on the family. The identified policies were
further reviewed to determine whether the family
was mentioned in a positive manner, in a negative
manner, or not at all. In 65% of these policies, the
family was mentioned in a positive manner, and only
1% of the policies had a negative comment. In 34% of
the policies, the family was not mentioned, and its
role in the problem or solution addressed in the
policy was not explored.
Some committees seem especially aware of the
centrality of the family in pediatric practice. For example, in the statement “The Pediatrician’s Role in
Family Support Programs,” the Committee on Early
Childhood, Adoption, and Dependent Care states,
“The health and welfare of children depend on the
ability of families and their community support systems to foster positive emotional and physical development. . . . The primary responsibility for the development and well-being of children lies within the
family.”104 After defining the role of the family, the
policy defines the role of the pediatrician in the following manner: “Pediatricians can provide family
support by engaging in a relationship with parents
based on collaboration and shared decision making
so that parents feel and become more competent.”
The role of pediatricians assisting not only the
child but also the family is also found in the policy
statement “The Pediatrician’s Role in Helping Children and Families Deal With Separation and Divorce” by the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of
Child and Family Health: “For many families, pediatricians may be the only readily accessible professional with expertise in the psychosocial aspects of
child and family health.”105
In its policy statement “Death of a Child in the
Emergency Department,” the Committee on Pediatric Emergency Medicine clearly describes the respectful interaction with the family in the event of a
child’s death: “A pediatrician working in the [emergency department] should remain sensitive to the
grief of the family while obtaining a medical and
social history and conducting a thorough physical
examination and evaluation, attempting to determine the cause of the child’s death. . . . Interventional
counseling and support for the parents, siblings, and
other family members is essential to facilitate a normal grieving process. . . . The grief of siblings, other
family members, or other children involved in the
death should not be overlooked. The [emergency
department] should have a private, established area
where the family may grieve and speak with physicians, nurses, chaplains, social workers, child protection services, or police.”106
Other AAP policies mention families but do not
explicitly discuss the pediatrician’s role, the involvement of the family, or how to strengthen the family.
For example, in “Home, Hospital, and Other Non–
School-Based Instruction for Children and Adolescents Who Are Medically Unable to Attend
School,”107 the Committee on School Health describes non–school-based instruction and mentions
parents only as a source of information rather than as
a partner and the primary decision maker for the
child: “Information should be exchanged among the
school, parents, and primary care physician to select
the most appropriate type of non–school-based instruction for the child.”
One recent revision of a policy statement might
indicate that policies are becoming more family oriented. The 1989 version of the policy statement “Adolescent Pregnancy” did not address the role of the
family in prevention, support, and collaboration
with the pediatrician.108 The only mention of family
was “the anger and distress engendered in some
families by pregnancy in a young, unmarried daughter makes it apparent that these girls bear a significant social burden.” The family is not seen in a
positive manner in this statement, and the impact on
the family is not to include them in the decisionmaking process. However, the most recent revision
of that statement does address families more explicitly: “Factors associated with a delay in the initiation
of sexual intercourse include living with both parents in a stable family environment, regular attendance at places of worship, and increased family
income.”109 It also lists parents, along with many
others, as having roles in successful pregnancy prevention programs. Overall, there is little attention to
the positive role that families can play. Absent from
the statement are advice to pediatricians on how to
engage, educate, and support the adolescent’s extended family and mention of that family’s longterm involvement in their adolescent’s care.
Assessing Family Orientation
New AAP policies are constantly being developed,
and existing policies are regularly reviewed.
Through the process of review and group discussion,
the Task Force on the Family developed a series of
questions to assess the presence of family orientation
in AAP policies (Table 2). These questions can assist
AAP committees when they review existing policy
statements and develop new ones. The questions are
meant only as a guide to avoid some of the shortcomings identified in existing policy statements during the course of the task force’s review. A related,
second series of questions was developed that can be
used by the AAP to evaluate public policies, programs, and services that they might endorse or promote (Table 3).
Practice Policies
The AAP has endorsed a number of guidelines and
policies related to recommended contents of child
health supervision. Bright Futures: Guidelines for the
Health Supervision of Infants, Children, and Adolescents
was developed in part because, “health supervision
policies and practices have not kept up with the
pervasive changes that have occurred in the family,
the community, and society . . . a new ‘‘health supervision’ is urgently needed to confront the ’’new mor-
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Assessing Policy Statements for Family Orientation
Does the policy statement
Potentially have an impact on families or family functioning?
Explicitly and positively mention the family or parents?
Respect the family’s autonomy and values?
Address the ongoing role of the family in the child’s care?
Acknowledge that parents are experts about their child and
are the child’s primary caregivers?
Identify and promote family strengths and skills?
Promote family involvement in decision making?
Consider the structure of the household and circumstances of
the family?
Strengthen the partnership relationship between the family
and the pediatrician?
Discuss the role of the pediatrician with regard to assisting
and strengthening the family?
Promote the pediatrician’s role in screening and referral of
parents for physical and mental health problems?
Assessing Public Policy Positions for Family Orien-
Does the public policy, program, or service
Promote and support decision making by the family
regarding their child’s health care?
Strengthen the health, safety, and well-being of families?
Enhance family knowledge and skills regarding child rearing?
Require family involvement in the development of programs
and public policies?
Increase services to children and families?
Support families to be primarily responsible for addressing
the needs of their child?
Promote family connections to their community?
Promote marriage and social stability of families?
bidities’ that challenge today’s children and families.”110 Appropriately, it recommends that “health
supervision goals include enhancing families’
strengths, addressing families’ problems, promoting
resiliency, building parental competence, and helping families share in the responsibility for preventing
illness or disability and promoting health.”110
In the AAP Guidelines for Health Supervision III111
developed by the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, pediatricians’ responsibilities for families are explicitly discussed as
follows: “Pediatricians are in a unique position to
recognize the manifestations of stressors in parenting, evaluate the risks involved, and determine the
necessary interventions. Pediatricians may observe
evidence of difficulties in the family system as they
assess the parents, the child, and the interactions
among them. When pediatricians identify children or
families at risk, they should recommend appropriate
interventions to strengthen the family’s resources.”
“Pediatricians are in a unique position to recognize the manifestations of stressors in parenting, evaluate the risks involved, and determine the necessary interventions.”111
In addition, the various age-specific chapters of
Guidelines for Health Supervision III include a number
of recommended questions to screen for family problems. These questions explore changes in family constellation, recent stresses, changes in work or child
care arrangements, parents’ physical and emotional
health, and many other topics, most of which are
outlined in Table 4.
Parental Characteristics That Place Children at Risk
Individual parent illness or vulnerability
Chronic physical or mental illness
Mental retardation or education deficiencies
Personality disorders
Alcoholism or other drug abuse and addiction
Lack of social or economic support systems
Conflictual marriage
Family relationships
Unavailable social support
Limited child care resources
Excessive child rearing responsibilities
Chronically ill or disabled child
Large family
Multiple birth
Difficult temperament in child
Disagreement about child rearing
Other demands on parents
Work schedule
Responsibilities for extended family members
Job responsibilities or dissatisfaction
Insufficient personal time
Household chores
Role of the AAP in Shaping Public Policy: Process
Public policies established by federal, state, and
local governing and administrative bodies clearly
have great impact on the health, safety, and welfare
of children and their families and on the ability of
pediatricians to serve them. The AAP and its members have a long history of advocating for public
policies that benefit children and pediatricians’ ability to serve children. Two AAP departments are
charged with working on public policy issues: the
Department of Federal Affairs and the Department
of Chapter and State Affairs, Division of State Government Affairs. The positions of the AAP on public
policy issues are based on existing AAP policy, as
manifested in policy statements, model legislation,
and other publications and directives from the executive committee or board of directors, which are
usually advised by the appropriate national committees, task forces, or other AAP bodies. The AAP takes
the lead in advocating policy positions with respect
to certain issues, such as health insurance coverage
for children. On other issues, the AAP has been less
involved, lending its support as part of a coalition of
organizations. Generally, AAP involvement is
greater when pediatricians’ expertise is closely relevant to an issue or the matter has a significant or
widespread impact on children or pediatricians.
A number of federal programs are aimed at helping low-income children, pregnant women, and families with children. There are also federal policies that
help children and families regardless of income, such
as the Family and Medical Leave Act, and programs
that provide funding for child protection, education,
public health infrastructure, and medical education
and research. Other federally funded programs are
aimed primarily at supporting the integrity of the
family by decreasing the incidence of child abuse
and neglect (eg, the Child Abuse Prevention and
Treatment Act112 and funds used for family preser-
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vation activities) or federal funding sources that can
be used by federal agencies or states for a variety of
activities, including programs that would provide
support to families.
“Our society— especially our public and economic institutions— does not give sufficient time, status, and financial
support for the essential task of care-giving in families,
schools, or child care centers.”1
Some public policies and programs may have unintended consequences on families or family structure. For example, for many years, families with 2
parents were not eligible for federal welfare assistance and concomitant Medicaid benefits, a policy
believed by some to have discouraged marriage.
Many policy makers and commentators argue that
current income tax policies result in a “marriage
penalty,” because in some cases, a married couple
must pay more taxes jointly than the 2 individuals
would pay if they were not married. However, tax
policies are very complex; some couples enjoy tax
benefits from marriage.
Given the myriad of public policies that affect
children and families at all levels and in all branches
of government, how can the AAP decide where to
focus its energies to best serve children and their
families? To what extent should the advocacy efforts
of the AAP be aimed at helping to improve family
functioning if it means that scarce resources are
thereby diverted from advocacy on matters more
directly related to child health?
As this document has described, a child’s health
and well-being are intimately related to the health
and well-being of the child’s family, including the
relationship between the child’s parents. Public policy can have an influence on family structure, functioning, and well-being. Accordingly, the AAP has
concerned itself with public policies that affect families as a way of promoting child health and wellbeing.
The task force identified 2 types of public policies
for which the AAP could advocate: 1) those that will
enhance the ability of pediatricians to provide support for families and 2) those that will directly support and strengthen families. In the first category are
policies that ensure that pediatricians have adequate
training, time, resources, and reimbursement to provide family-oriented care. These include reforms that
could be achieved through changes in state insurance
benefit mandates, changes to Medicaid policies at
federal or state levels, other federal programs and
policies, and attempts to change the reimbursement
policies of private insurers, directly or through employers who provide the benefit to their employees.
Reforms to the insurance system that would provide better coverage for family-centered counseling,
education, and mental health services would include
securing reimbursement for pediatricians for such
services. This would allow pediatricians to be economically able to practice family pediatrics, which
would include the following:
discussing effective parenting with parents;
assessing and responding to the needs of all families for social support;
ascertaining how conflict is managed within families;
screening for domestic violence;
inquiring and advising patients about child care,
parental time allocation, and the importance of
balancing work and family responsibilities;
ascertaining the mental health of the parents in
their practice; and
routinely assessing the entire family’s health,
health practices, and health behaviors.
In the second category of public policies for which
the AAP could advocate are those that would better
enable parents to provide adequate emotional and
material support for their children. Among these
policies would be those that will enhance the health
and strength of families, parental involvement in
children’s lives, the skills of parents, and parents’
ability to provide financial security for their children.
The list of potential topics is long and ranges from
ensuring access to good-quality child care to labor
law reform. The task force’s recommendations are
designed to identify some first steps in building a
policy agenda.
Existing policies represent a piecemeal approach
to addressing the needs of children and families in
the United States. Although continuing to advocate
for specific policy changes, the AAP may wish to
consider taking a leading role in promoting the development of a cohesive, coherent approach to family policy for the country.
The AAP produces patient and parent brochures
on a variety of subjects. Most of these are designed to
provide parents with anticipatory guidance about
managing common developmental and family issues
and preventing dangerous events and behaviors. For
example, topics include sleep problems, temper tantrums, television and the family, discipline, substance abuse prevention, and environmental tobacco
smoke. Others more specifically address family issues, such as single parenting and divorce. The brochure You and Your Pediatrician notes that pediatricians will work with parents on issues of emotional
and family problems.113
In addition to educational pamphlets, the AAP
publishes a series of age-specific parent and child
guides to pediatric visits.114 These pamphlets, designed to be given to parents in advance of a health
supervision visit, provide some developmentally appropriate information and assist parents in identifying areas of concern they would like to discuss with
the pediatrician. Among the list of topics that parents
may identify as child health and development concerns are many that specifically relate to family issues, including death or illness of a family member,
financial problems, family psychologic problems,
conflict, violence and substance abuse, and parents’
childhood experiences that may be influencing their
child-rearing practices.
The AAP also produces a 3-book series on caring
for children from birth through age 5, ages 6 through
12, and age 13 and older.115–117 Each of these books
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devotes a great deal of space to discussing family
issues. These books, thoroughly reviewed by AAP
committees and board members, discuss a large
number of family issues, including communication,
problem solving, routines, moving, parents’ work,
marriage and divorce, and single and stepparents.
These publications can be useful not only to parents
but also to professionals who work with children and
Resources for Resident Education
The AAP Guidelines for Health Supervision III111 is a
primary resource that could be used for resident
education regarding family issues. The more recent
editions of these guidelines have devoted more attention to the therapeutic alliance that should exist
between the pediatrician and patients and their families. Many of the task force’s recommendations were
anticipated by the content of this publication. In addition to age-appropriate health assessment material,
information is presented to help the pediatrician-intraining be aware of and discuss family relationships
and parenting practices. Many AAP public education
brochures that deal with family and emotional issues
also could be helpful in resident education.
Overview: Importance of the Family
A well-functioning family of 2 parents and their
children is potentially the most secure, supportive,
and nurturing environment for children. Parenting is
difficult and is easier when shared. Children do best
when raised by 2 caring, cooperative parents with
adequate social and financial resources. Having married parents, in general, is good for children— economically, socially, spiritually, and psychologically.
Marriage strengthens children’s claims to the economic resources, love and affection, nurturing, and
social capital of both parents, including access to
extended families. Marriage helps promote and support responsible and caring parenting. Moreover,
parents’ help, support, encouragement, and love for
each other enhance their effectiveness as parents.
Parents’ love and respect for each other promote the
child’s well-being.
“Good-hearted parents who aren’t afraid to be firm when it is
necessary can get good results with either moderate strictness
or moderate permissiveness. . . . The real issue is what spirit
the parent puts into managing the child and what attitude is
engendered in the child as a result.”118
Children seem to do better when there is a fit
between the temperament, personality, and needs of
children and the style of parenting they receive. That
fit is best achieved when parents are authoritative—
when they are warm and affectionate, clear and firm
about their expectations, and not rigid. Too strong
parental control is associated with more school problems, lower sociability, and less initiative.119
Feeling connected to their family is healthy for
children, adolescents, mothers, and fathers. Belonging to a family is a dynamic process in which parents
influence children, spouse affects spouse, and children change parents. Children’s physical and emo-
tional health and their cognitive and social functioning are strongly influenced by how well their
families function. It is essential that pediatricians
realize that the family is their patient—not just the
child. Everything the pediatrician does for the child
is within the context of the family. Therefore, for
pediatric care to be effective, it must be family oriented.
Families need more support than even the bestintentioned pediatrician can provide. Pediatricians
are expected by society to advocate for children and
families. All social institutions, especially the workplace, places of worship, schools, and community
and social agencies and organizations, need to be
encouraged to support families. It is particularly appropriate, pragmatically and from a spiritual standpoint, for organized religion to encourage the initiation and maintenance of marriages. In addition to
assisting individual families, communities should institute policies and programs that promote social
connectedness—families knowing and helping families.
The State of Pediatric Practice
Families with children are struggling to succeed.
To be most helpful, pediatricians must understand
not only the problems families face but also what is
required for families to be successful. They must
learn to recognize families’ strengths as well as their
needs to help families function optimally. Table 5
lists the characteristics of a family-oriented pediatrician.
The task force strongly endorses the belief that
assessing and addressing the health and well-being
of the family should be an integral part of pediatrics.
The family as a unit is so basic and central to the care
and welfare of the child that it is imperative that the
profession embrace the concept of family pediatrics
and what it entails. In the context of family pediatrics, traditional medical therapy, anticipatory guidance, and managing the new morbidities should become standard parts of pediatric training and
practice. Families, because of a number of interacting
factors, may be unable to meet the medical or social
needs of their children. The pediatrician must consider the dynamics involved while screening for and
diagnosing problems and developing a management
plan or initiating a referral. The challenge is to obtain
and incorporate the necessary information as completely and concisely as possible into a functional
plan. Those who take the time, mostly at their own
expense, to listen and offer suggestions can make a
difference.120 It is appropriate for pediatricians to
identify the types of support that enhance family
stability and function and offer connections to those
services and activities. However, the task force recognizes that some pediatricians may not be willing
and others may not be ready to provide care that
considers and encompasses the family. Shortcomings
in their training, experience, referral networks, reimbursement, and available time all present barriers to
this expanded role.
Opportunities abound for the practicing pediatrician to become involved in the nurturing of the fam-
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A Family-Oriented Pediatrician
Learns about
Family members’ health and well-being
Parenting issues and practices
Values and goals of the family
Family’s relationships and time together
Impact of the child on the family
Community activities and involvement
Work and child care
Family strengths and social supports
Information about the practice-its schedules, policies, web
site, special services, and recommended consultants
Information about how the physician handles family issues
Adequate evening and weekend hours for sick and well care
Accommodations for other family members (eg, chairs, space,
reading materials)
Written, age-specific materials on parenting, family issues,
and local family support services
Space for breastfeeding
Telephone consultation hours
Opportunities for groups of parents to meet to discuss
common issues
Prenatal visits
Encouragement for maintaining a healthy marriage
Opportunities to discuss parent and family issues
Active roles for each family member during the clinical
That both parents or significant caregivers should attend
scheduled appointments
A welcoming, courteous, and culturally competent medical
Parents preventively to relationship or marriage education
To mental health professionals who offer family-oriented
Patients for appropriate medical care when problems are
Lists of community and volunteer organizations that
incorporate parental participation
Lists of local family-oriented activities and services
Information about parenting courses and relationship
Information on child care resources and baby-sitting
Symbols or visual cues signaling that all types of patients and
families are welcome
Pictures of families of all types
ily. Involvement may vary from extensive counseling
to referral and resource recommendations and from
community to state and national advocacy. Participation in the local community as a parent or a volunteer may enhance credibility. The pediatrician’s
experience of parenting and family relationships
makes him or her more appreciative of the dedication, effort, frustration, and rewards of family
Pediatricians ordinarily have no problem identifying which resources to bring to bear in caring for an
ill child, but resources for families may not be as well
known. Consultation with colleagues in child development and mental health professions provides the
broadest selection of needed services. School guidance counselors and the family services division with
the state health department are good sources of assistance. Many community and private foundations,
religious organizations, information and referral
agencies, and other organizations that focus on the
family may be of assistance to patients and families.
Most communities also have informal associations
and groups that share interests or goals that also can
be of great assistance.
Professional Education and Training
Medical education traditionally has not provided
adequate education about families and the family
unit. There is a need to improve the quality of such
education. Growth and development of the individual, the effect of culture on childhood and adolescence, family planning, marriage, family development, and family functioning all are subjects of
anticipatory guidance and are clearly within the
realm of the practice of family pediatrics. Pediatricians must learn more about the family context of
child health, but questions persist about how and by
whom it is to be taught. Pronouncements about the
family often polarize discussions, and objective information is sometimes lost. Reliable and useful research-based information on families and child development must be made available to pediatricians
and pediatric educators. The information should be
culturally sensitive.
Advocacy and Policy
There is a growing appreciation that nurturing
children must be a shared responsibility of the family, the state, and the community, including professionals. Pediatricians have a unique opportunity to
assist families and strengthen their ability to meet
their children’s needs. To do this effectively requires
the pediatric profession to expand its roles and responsibilities to include partnering with the family
and caring for it in new ways.
The AAP, founded to address the needs of mothers
and children, is long overdue to expand its concern
to include the needs of families. As a national organization and through its state chapters, committees,
and sponsorships, the AAP is well positioned to
provide the stimulus and background for a national
discussion on the desirability of stable, healthy, and
well-functioning families.
A Future for Pediatric Practice
The task force recognizes that some of its recommendations are derived from principles with underlying values shared by the task force members. Similarly, in establishing the Task Force on the Family,
the AAP responded to the principle that the family is
important to the practice of pediatrics and to the
well-being of children. The AAP further supported
that perspective in its latest strategic plan in which it
committed itself to addressing the needs of families
as well as of children and communities. The task
force concurs with that point of view and has concluded that in addition to meeting the health care
needs of children, high-quality pediatric care requires attention to caregivers’ relationships, health,
and behaviors. The task force has further concluded
that there is a need to achieve a consensus regarding
the importance of parenting and families not only
within the pediatric profession but also more broadly
throughout society. That consensus should be based
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on science within a moral and cultural context. Accordingly, the Task Force on the Family offers the
following conclusions and recommendations.
The Task Force on the Family reviewed research
literature and demographic information about
American families. From that review, it is clear that
children’s outcomes, physical and emotional health,
and cognitive and social functioning are strongly
influenced by how well their families function. There
is much that practicing pediatricians can do, acknowledging current constraints, to help nurture
and support families and thus promote optimal family functioning and children’s outcomes. From its
review, the task force has tried to draw a limited
number of cogent conclusions that are relevant to
pediatrics. Underlying each of the specific conclusions is the principle that, to address effectively the
health and well-being of children, pediatricians must
approach the family—not just the child—as the patient.
Family Function and Structure
1. In general, children grow up to be healthier,
more productive, and more well-adjusted adults
when their parents are married and live together,
support each other, communicate effectively,
maintain good mental and physical health, and
eschew violence.
2. Each family’s circumstances are unique, and a
family’s composition, including marital status,
number and gender of adults and children in the
household, race, ethnicity, cultural, religion, and
sexual orientation, does not accurately predict its
3. Children can thrive in a variety of family types in
addition to the traditional 2-parent, married
4. Active involvement of fathers in the lives of their
children is important for their emotional, educational, and economic success.
5. Children do best when authoritative parenting is
provided by parents who are responsive to their
needs and feelings and combine warmth with
thoughtful, firm limit setting consistently over
6. Parents’ approach to child rearing reflects their
experiences within their own families of origin,
within their current family, and with their other
7. The birth of a child and the many other events,
transitions, and crises that families experience
are times when parents are especially available
and open to education and advice.
8. Sufficient economic and social support is needed
by all families and, in addition, can decrease the
special challenges of being a single parent.
Family Circumstances
9. Children are at special risk for health, behavior,
and emotional problems when their families 1)
expose them to conflict, anger, and aggression; 2)
fail to meet their emotional needs; and 3) do not
effectively discipline them or help them to internalize appropriate social norms and values.
Depression and other emotional problems of
parents, marital tension, and parental substance
abuse (which is often associated with domestic
violence) have a detrimental impact on children.
The circumstances of a divorce— especially the
previous and subsequent relationship between
the parents, between the parents and the child,
and between the child and the parents’ extended
family and friendship network and the custodial
parent’s financial circumstances—are powerful
determinants of its impact on a child.
Remarriage and stepparenting, although common events, require major readjustments for
families and often are very difficult for children.
The responsibilities and structure of parents’ employment often are time consuming and stressful
and can adversely affect child rearing.
Safe, nurturing, and developmentally appropriate child care inside and outside the home can
enhance outcomes for children; poor-quality
child care can have detrimental effects on children’s development and behavior.
Pediatric Practice
15. Family-oriented care often requires that pediatricians refer to and collaborate with other professionals to address the needs of families.
16. Although there are few studies about the family
circumstances and family lives of pediatricians
and pediatric residents, it is likely that their personal family experiences affect their approach to
patient care and education.
17. The workplaces of pediatricians vary greatly in
how well they adopt and implement familyfriendly policies.
18. Pediatric practice should encompasses the wellbeing of the family as well as the health of the
19. To provide appropriate care for children, pediatricians must expand their practices to encompass the assessment of family relationships,
health, and behaviors.
20. Families face many barriers to accessing familyoriented care, such as prenatal visits, family-centered counseling and mental health services, and
parent advice or education visits.
21. There is a need to achieve a broad consensus
within the medical profession and society at
large regarding the importance of marriage, parenting, and families that is based on science
within a moral and social context.
22. Parents have primary responsibility for meeting
their children’s physical, emotional, social, educational, and spiritual needs but need to be supported in carrying out this responsibility by family, friends, community, and society.
Parents and other caregivers, as well as the larger community,
share responsibility for emotional and material support of
children as well as the transmission of values. We grossly
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underestimate the material and nonmaterial resources needed
by families to undertake successfully the role of parenting.121
The task force’s recommendations have implications for the training and continuing education of
pediatricians, for the policies supported and implemented by individual pediatricians and the AAP, for
the way in which individual child health care is
provided within a family context, and for research
that needs to be done.
Recommendations for Education of Pediatricians and
Resident Education
The AAP should encourage the Residency Review
Committee for Pediatrics to require pediatric residents to have the skills and knowledge to carry out a
family assessment and provide family-oriented care.
1. Residents should understand the impact of family structure, family dynamics, and family functioning on children and adolescents.
2. Residents should be able to convey information
on effective child rearing, including communication between parents and children and between
3. Residents should recognize the importance of
knowing about and knowing how to refer families to public child health programs, support services, and community resources.
4. Residents should be capable of screening for
family stress and identifying mental illness, substance abuse, and domestic violence in parents
and suggesting assistance.
5. Residents should make available to parents information on the value of social support of all
6. Residents should recognize the special stresses
faced by single parents compared with 2-parent
7. Residents should be able to explain the potential
benefits of the father’s involvement in the home.
8. Residents should be capable of helping families
understand the effects of divorce on the physical
and emotional health of children and counseling
families in decreasing the adverse effects of divorce on their children.
9. Residents should be able to recognize and assist
families to manage the problems and risks associated with stepfamilies and live-in partners.
10. Residents should understand and acknowledge
the potential advantages and disadvantages of
at-home parenting and out-of-home child care to
children, families, and communities.
11. Through the Residency Review Committee for
Pediatrics, the AAP should encourage training
programs to implement policies, procedures, services, and accommodations that support residents who are pregnant or have children.
Continuing Education of Pediatricians
The AAP should develop a comprehensive plan to
provide practicing pediatricians with continuing ed1566
ucation in family-oriented care so they have the skills
to screen, assess, advise, and assist all families in
their practice and thus promote the best outcomes
for children. These include, at a minimum, the skills
and knowledge included in recommendations for
resident education. In addition, the AAP should promote family-oriented care by doing the following:
12. All CME offerings should consider their impact,
consequences, and opportunities for enhancing
family functioning.
13. CME courses should consider the impact of a
child’s health problem on the family and vice
14. CME offerings should consider the family context of a child’s problem as an opportunity to
educate the family and address their need for
15. There should be CME offerings to address practical, time-efficient approaches to providing family-oriented care in office practice.
Educational Materials for Parents
The AAP should continuously review its parent
education materials to ensure that they include information that promotes a family-oriented approach
to child rearing.
16. AAP materials should be consistent in recommending effective parenting strategies that are
developmentally appropriate and responsive to
children’s individual needs.
17. The AAP should develop a brochure on the importance of fathers and how they can be involved
in promoting the successful development of their
18. The AAP should develop a brochure on the impact of family well-being on children’s behavior
and development.
Recommendations for Public and Internal Policy and
Advocacy Activities
Public Policy for Children and Families
The AAP should become more active in advocating for public policies to better enable parents to
provide adequate emotional and material support
for their children (see Table 3). To this end:
19. The AAP should advocate for public policies and
public education programs that encourage, support, promote, and help to sustain healthy marriages.
20. The AAP should support reforms of the public
and private insurance system that would provide better coverage for parents in addition to
children and for family-centered counseling, education, and mental health services by primary
care physicians.
21. The AAP should support public policies that
help all families meet the needs of their children
regardless of the families’ composition or structure.
22. The AAP should support public policies that
give priority to helping families with young children meet the needs of their children.
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23. The AAP should advocate for public policies that
ensure the availability of affordable, healthy,
safe, and developmentally appropriate educational child care.
24. The AAP should develop a mechanism to assess
the impact on families of all proposed legislation
that it promotes or targets for support.
25. The AAP should promote public policies that
hold parents responsible for meeting their children’s needs while providing support to enable
families to meet those responsibilities effectively.
Advocacy for Pediatricians
The AAP should advocate for public policies to
ensure that pediatricians have adequate time, resources, billing options, and reimbursement to provide family-oriented care.
26. The AAP should investigate the possibility of
advocating for an insurance benefit or other incentives to encourage both parents to be present
for health supervision visits.
27. Insurers should be encouraged to pay for prenatal pediatric visits.
28. The AAP should assist pediatricians to design
practice models and provider contracts that include services for family-oriented care.
Internal AAP Policy
29. The AAP should encourage pediatricians to act
as family advocates and should help equip members for that role by providing appropriate continuing education experiences and materials.
30. The AAP should serve as a model for familyfriendly policies, practices, and work environments.
31. The AAP should establish a visible and influential process that continues the work of the Task
Force on the Family, promoting the development
and adoption of family pediatrics (see Table 2).
Local Advocacy and Institutional Policy
Through its chapters and its relationships with
other professional organizations, the AAP should
promote local and national policies and activities
that support and strengthen families.
32. The AAP should encourage schools and communities to make skills-based relationship education
33. The AAP should support the availability of
prepregnancy education, relationship education,
premarital counseling, and pre- and postdivorce
counseling for parents.
34. The AAP should promote and participate in public education regarding the important role fathers can play in the successful development of
their children.
35. The AAP should advocate for family-friendly
workplaces and policies that enhance the ability
of parents to be available for their children.
36. The AAP should adopt a definition of the familyfriendly work environment that includes but is
not limited to one that has flexible hours, ade-
quate staffing, and parental leave policies that
acknowledge the family responsibilities of both
37. The AAP should encourage purveyors of public
media to present and promote positive family
role models.
Recommendations for Pediatric Practice
Pediatricians should promote good family functioning by providing advice, support, and appropriate referrals to assist families to meet their children’s
Key Practice Behaviors
38. Pediatricians should be knowledgeable about the
structure and functioning of families for whom
they provide care.
39. Pediatricians should encourage families to set
aside time to be together, share activities, and
establish routines.
40. Pediatricians should routinely discuss effective
parenting with parents and should support child
rearing that is responsive to their child’s needs
and feelings and combines warmth and thoughtful, firm limit setting consistently over time.
41. Pediatric practices should be designed to welcome and meet the needs of families of diverse
composition and beliefs (see Table 5).
42. Pediatricians should provide nonjudgmental,
culturally sensitive, family-oriented care to all of
their patients. This requires that the family’s history, interactions, and preferred solutions are
considered, used, and supported.
43. Pediatricians should help families identify their
strengths and the assets that they bring to the
task of child rearing.
44. Pediatricians should assess and respond to the
needs of all families for social support, not only
those who they anticipate may have a greater
45. Pediatric practices should emphasize helping
parents to meet their responsibilities as the
adults primarily responsible for their children’s
physical, emotional, and social health and development.
Promote Parental Partnerships
46. Pediatricians should assess and seek ways to
enhance and strengthen the marriage and relationship between their patients’ parents.
47. Pediatricians should inquire about and screen for
tension in the home over key areas, such as behavior management, expectations, responsibilities, and communication.
48. Pediatricians should encourage both parents to
be involved in the health care, education, discipline, and emotional support of their children.
49. Pediatricians should routinely inquire about the
involvement of the father in child rearing, educate parents about the importance of the father’s
involvement in child rearing, and voice their expectation that the father will be present at child
health supervision visits.
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Marital Issues
Family Health
50. Pediatricians should be aware of the negative
impact of marital conflict and divorce on children of different ages and should educate divorcing parents about what they can do to decrease
the adverse effects on their child. They should
provide advice, written materials, and referrals to
other professional services and support groups.
51. Pediatricians should recommend and support an
active role and assumption of some child-rearing
responsibilities by the noncustodial parent, if appropriate.
61. Pediatricians should ascertain the physical and
mental health of the parents in their practice and
periodically review the importance of parents’
attention to their own mental health needs.
62. Pediatricians should routinely inquire about and
discuss the use of tobacco, alcohol, and other
drugs by family members and the effect of these
behaviors on children’s health and well-being.
63. Pediatricians should routinely ask about and assess the entire family’s health, health practices,
and health behaviors.
Specific Services
Recommendations for Future Research
52. Pediatricians should use prenatal and early visits
with new parents to discuss the importance of
parents’ relationships, the predictable changes in
relationships between parents and among parents and children, and the value of both parents
sharing in the care of the child.
53. During family crises and transitions, pediatricians should focus on the impact of these events
on the family as well as on the individual child.
54. Pediatricians should be familiar with and help
families find and use resources that can assist
them to obtain educational, supportive, and clinical services from their extended family, community agencies and services, faith organizations,
and neighbors.
55. Pediatricians should ascertain how disagreement
and conflict are managed within families, routinely screen for domestic violence, and intervene or make a referral when problems are identified.
56. Pediatricians should actively identify and refer
families who might benefit from counseling and
support services because of medical or social
The AAP should encourage or undertake research
to better enable pediatricians to provide family-oriented care.
Personal Advocacy
58. It is appropriate for pediatricians to review the
practices and policies of the environment in
which they work to ensure that they and their
employees are able to fulfill personal and family
Child Care
59. Pediatricians should inquire about daily child
care arrangements for their patients and respect
the choices that parents make regarding work
while educating them about the needs of their
children. This includes discussing parental time
allocation, characteristics of good-quality child
care, and the importance of balancing work and
family responsibilities.
60. Pediatricians should know what constitutes
good-quality child care and should be aware of
the potential advantages and disadvantages of
at-home parenting and out-of-home child care
for children, families, and communities. They
should support and advise parents as they create
or identify safe, healthy, and developmentally
appropriate educational environments for their
Practice Policy
64. Research should be performed on the impact and
cost of family-oriented care on child health outcomes.
65. Research should be performed on barriers to
family-oriented care and how to remove those
66. Research should be performed on patient satisfaction, including provider responsiveness to
family concerns and problems.
Pediatric Practice
67. The best practical interventions should be identified for pediatricians to promote effective parenting and to strengthen families, including
those with children who are born outside marriage or living outside the parenting partnership.
68. Methods or protocols should be evaluated and
recommended for screening for parental stress
and identifying mental health problems, substance abuse, and domestic violence.
69. Instruments and protocols should be developed
and recommended for the assessment of and
intervention with families in the context of child
health care.
70. The AAP should encourage research on the consequences of different family structure, childrearing models, and the role of government in
supporting families.
71. The ways and extent to which parents participate
in well-child care and children’s daily lives
should be studied.
72. Interdisciplinary team practice models should be
developed and evaluated as vehicles for more
effective care.
Public Policy
73. Research should be performed on how to involve
effectively adolescent and other high-risk fathers
in the lives of their children and when it is appropriate to do so.
74. The most effective public policies to provide support for single parents should be identified.
75. The impact of carve-outs and different levels of
benefits and reimbursement for mental health
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services on child health and pediatric practice
should be evaluated.
76. Research should be performed on the effects of
relationship education on child health outcomes.
77. Research should be performed on the effects of
family stability, parental workforce participation, and families’ community involvement on
children’s health and well-being.
AAP Policy
78. Studies should be performed on the family compositions and parenting practices of AAP members and on factors that influence their family
79. Standards for evaluating parent education programs and materials should be developed.
80. The AAP Periodic Survey of Fellows should
monitor the progress of the profession toward
becoming more family oriented.
Task Force on the Family
*Edward L. Schor, MD, Chairperson
Marilyn M. Billingsley, MD
Alma L. Golden, MD
Julia A. McMillan, MD
Linda D. Meloy, MD
Ben C. Pendarvis, Jr, MD
William L. Coleman, MD
Donald Wertlieb, PhD
Crystal Milazzo, MPA
*Lead author
In 1993 and 1994, the American Academy of Pediatrics Annual
Chapter Forum passed resolutions urging the Academy to “foster
the development of public policy that is family-friendly and supports the maintenance of a 2-parent household.” These resolutions
further requested that the Academy “develop policy to help pediatricians to provide guidance to single-parent households in
situations in which 2-parent households are not possible” and
finally to “promote methods to be used to encourage the promotion of nurturing families for all children.” Although the issues are
complex, we must move rapidly in this direction if we are to fulfill
our Mission.
Directives to the Task Force on the Family
1. Analyze the social science and medical literature to quantify the
nature of those factors that strengthen the family’s ability to
nurture children.
2. Develop materials to enable Academy members to teach parenting skills to families in their practice, and assist residency
programs in developing health education curricula that support teaching about optimal family function in a culturally
sensitive manner.
3. Guide the Academy in the development of federal and state
legislative policy that is family friendly and supports the maintenance of 2-parent households, including changes in tax policy, welfare, and other social services policies that now may
encourage family dissolution.
4. Guide the Academy in the development of policy to help pediatricians to provide guidance to single-parent households in
support of their children.
5. Undertake a careful review of existing Academy policies relative to their impact on family and family function, making
recommendations to committees and the Board of Directors
with respect to policy modification based on data development
and analysis.
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Family Pediatrics: Report of the Task Force on the Family
American Academy of Pediatrics
Pediatrics 2003;111;1541
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